Standing room only as newly-elected Bell City Council accepts oath

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AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Newly elected city council members Ali Saleh, from left, Nestor Enrique Valencia, Danny Harber, Violeta Alvarez and Ana Maria Quintana take part during a swearing-in ceremony in Bell, Calif. Thursday, April 7, 2011.

Eager citizens of Bell packed their City Hall last night for the inauguration of five newly-elected City Council members. The tone of the ceremony signaled a welcome change in a city plagued with scandal and protests.

A Bell city police officer promised to allow dozens of people inside the community center auditorium - but after the inauguration ceremony. During the proceedings, it was just too crowded. Every seat was filled.

Before she took her place inside, Council Member-Elect Ana Maria Quintana paused to greet the crowd in the overflow area.

“I’m very excited as you can see. It’s like full capacity, I think people want to be a part of this and I’m very proud of my community as well... I think I need to get back in there,” Quintana said as she rushed back inside the auditorium.

Her constituents didn’t seem to mind that they were stuck outside. They cheered the five elected councilmembers as each delivered short, motivational speeches after they were sworn in.

Quintana, who is an attorney, made sure to glance toward that overflow area when she spoke.

“I’m very much looking forward to just starting new and fixing our city because we have so much work to do, but again, our people are hard working people, we’re good, we’re strong and we’re gonna rebuild our city.”

In addition to Quintana, Bell's new Council includes small business owner Ali Saleh, social services worker Violeta Alvarez, health care administrator Nestor Valencia and Danny Harber – a retired baker.

Valencia encouraged voters to hold their new city leaders accountable. “We have to take our responsibilities not only as councilmembers but also as community – you, the sixth council member to come to our meetings.”

Harber said he’s ready to help clean up the mess former top Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo, his ex-assistant and six former City Council members left behind. All of them face public corruption charges.

“It should have never happened and it never will happen," said Harber. "It definitely will not happen on my watch. For the few years I’ll be in there, however long it may be, nobody’s gonna walk around with their pockets full as long as I’m around, I promise you that.”

Earlier this week, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved the March 8 election results, in which a surge of voters overwhelmingly turned out to recall the Bell councilmembers who hadn't resigned.

The new Council plans to tackle a budget deficit of at least $3.5 million – and the city’s default on an outstanding $35 million bond issue. Then there’s the matter of the police force – whether to maintain it or let the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department take over law enforcement.

Maria Torres, who's spent most of her life in Bell, said she’s against disbanding the city's police department. She considers many officers like family.

“They’re very responsible, very honest," said Torres. "I know everywhere you go there are one or two bad, but the rest is good. I love Bell. That’s my city."

The newly-inaugurated Bell City Council expects to convene its first public meeting early next week.

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