As prelim hearings wind down, Bell residents forge ahead

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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.

Former Bell city manager Robert Rizzo will be back in court Tuesday in Los Angeles to face conflict of interest charges. It's the last round of preliminary hearings for eight city leaders who'll stand trial for more than 60 counts of fraud. As attorneys prepare for what could be a lengthy trial, the people who live in Bell have begun working to restore a city government that's in shambles.

Like many in Bell, Donna Gannon, 57, is furious. She has lived in Bell all her life and when news of huge salaries for city officials broke last summer, she marched down to city hall and scolded Bell council members.

"You're taking our money ... and you think we're not going to be mad about it?" Gannon shouted as then-Mayor Oscar Herdandez banged his gavel. "You're out of your minds!"

Gannon's tirade happened shortly after the LA Times exposed the bloated salaries that Bell City Council members were raking in: nearly $100,000 a year for part-time work on the Council and other committees.

Since that heated council meeting eight months ago, Gannon's frustration has led to vigilance. She's among several residents that regularly attend the preliminary hearings of eight disgraced city politicians in downtown Los Angeles. Gannon says she intends to see them get what they deserve in court.

"They did not follow through with their responsibilities," said Gannon. "When you are sworn in, you should find out your duties and you should do your duty - and they didn't bother. All they did was stand there with their hand out and took the check."

Defense attorneys say Rizzo and others broke no laws when they "took the check." In the upcoming trial, they promise to show evidence that supports their argument. Prosecutors contend Rizzo and a cohort of Council members and administrators illegally inflated their salaries - and in the process, bilked the city treasury of more than $5 million.

"Scheming and finding a way to manipulate millions of dollars out of our tax dollars which is from the city of Bell is outrageous," said longtime Bell resident Alfred Areyan, who says he looks forward to the trial.

"We've got enough evidence to prove that there was a lot of misappropriation of funds and only time will tell the outcome. But we believe it's going to be a good outcome which is justice for Bell."

To ensure the "better outcome" Bell voters flocked to the polls last week and recalled four City Council members. They elected a brand new five-member Council.

"I like to say better to be a mile outside of hell heading out but they've got a ways to go," predicted Dan Schnur who teaches politics at USC. He said for the people of Bell, the hard work begins now.

"The city belongs to them. Their newly elected leaders, no matter how well meaning they are, are going to have to make difficult and some often unpopular positions "

Tough positions include tackling a budget deficit of several million dollars. Newly elected council members say they'll have to take a closer look at disbanding the police department, cutting employee salaries and revamping the city charter.

Resident Alfredo Vasquez encourages novice lawmakers to roll up their sleeves.

"We all want to see that the city shines on again. But it's a lengthy process," Vasquez said. "It might even be the next Council members next year, or two years from now making it all come together."

The new government vows it won't be business as usual in Bell. Council members promise to push the city forward after they take office at the beginning of April.

This time, the people of Bell will be watching.

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