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File photo: (L-R) City of Bell council members Lorenzo Velez, vice mayor Teresa Jacobo, mayor Oscar Hernandez, Councilman George Mirabel and Councilman Luis Artiga listen to residents asking them to resign during a council meeting on July 26, 2010 in Bell, California.
The city of Bell in southeastern Los Angeles County has attracted national attention since an L.A. Times investigation last year found evidence of rampant corruption among public officials. As Tuesday’s election approaches, more than half a dozen City Council members and managers face allegations of criminal misconduct. Some activists see opportunity in the small city’s crisis.
No matter what the election results may be, Nestor Enrique Valencia is confident his city will come out ahead. That’s because Bell voters will usher in a nearly-new city council, chosen from 17 contenders.
Valencia is one of them. The 44-year-old hospital administrator received the most applause from a full house as he spoke during a recent forum at Bell city hall.
“We need a good manager," Valencia told the crowd. "We need good contract management. And that’s how we’re going to get this city back on track.”
Getting Bell back on track is a top priority for many long-timers like Alfredo Vasquez. The truck driver is making up his mind.
As I speak with Vasquez about the campaign, I notice he’s wearing a T-shirt with a picture of councilman Lorezo Velez, who’s running for re-election.
"Hey, I’ve gotta be even-Steven with everybody," Vasquez said. "I just hope that the best candidates make it in. I’m not for anyone in particular right now. I just want to have a good new government.”
To keep his seat on the Council, Velez has his work cut out for him. Voters at the candidates forum seemed unmoved as they watched his video presentation. They appeared indifferent as he discussed his platform in a speech that moderators cut short when it ran long.
“I wanna make sure that our city is well taken care of," said Velez. "That we can continue to preserve all the programs... all our community programs."
Ali Saleh, a small business owner who was born and raised in Bell, is also running for city council. He says Velez should have been more vigilant.
“If you were in the government at the time, you should have asked questions back then," Saleh explained. "As a city councilman, you have all the right for all the public records. If you just stay quiet and don’t ask for information, I think it says a lot about you and he should’ve asked those questions back then, not now.”
Saleh promised that if voters elect him, he’d promote business and bring transparency to the Bell City Council. The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor recently endorsed him and four other candidates, including 44- year-old social services worker Violeta Alvarez.
She wants to organize public employees in Bell. "If Bell city workers would have been unionized then the success of Robert Rizzo would have never happened," Alvarez said. "No union negotiator in the world would have ever allowed Rizzo to game the system for so long.”
As the preliminary hearing for former top administrator Robert Rizzo and other officials continues in L.A. Superior Court, voters will go to the polls to fix their broken government. On Tuesday, they’re expected to recall several former and current public servants charged with looting the city of millions of dollars.
Cristina Garcia, with the “Bell Association to Stop the Abuse” organization (known as BASTA), helped arrange the recall election. She and others are eager to begin a new chapter in the city’s history.
“This is just the first step of many more to come and hopefully lots of engagement in the future and for future generations."
Newly minted activists are confident that generations of Bell voters will pack the polls on Election Day – and the seats at future City Council meetings – as never before.