Bell needs help, now

With sev­eral of­fi­cials un­der ar­rest, per­haps an in­de­pen­dent re­ceiver should be put in charge of the city.

Los Angeles Times - - Opinion -

Af­ter weeks of rev­e­la­tions by Times re­porters about the dis­turb­ing do­ings of Bell mu­nic­i­pal lead­ers, it’s grat­i­fy­ing to see county and state of­fi­cials ag­gres­sively seek­ing moral and mon­e­tary pay­back for the city’s ag­grieved res­i­dents.

On Tues­day, crim­i­nal charges of mis­ap­pro­pri­at­ing pub­lic funds were filed against for­mer City Man­ager Robert Rizzo as well as the mayor and three coun­cil mem­bers. Sev­eral other for­mer city lead­ers also were ar­rested and charged.

The ar­rests came a week af­ter state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown filed a civil law­suit against most of the same Bell of­fi­cials, ac­cus­ing them of de­fraud­ing the pub­lic and de­mand­ing re­pay­ment of some of their salaries and lim­its on their pen­sions.

Whether or not the Bell of­fi­cials are found guilty or li­able, there can be no doubt that they en­gaged in de­spi­ca­ble acts, some of which came out in the Times cov­er­age, some of which they have ad­mit­ted them­selves, and some of which were di­vulged by govern­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

Here are some of the things we know: Coun­cil mem­bers stuffed their pock­ets with up to $100,000 a year by serv­ing for only a few min­utes on boards whose busi­ness was ap­pended to City Coun­cil meet­ings. City of­fi­cials paid them­selves out­ra­geous amounts — Rizzo, for in­stance, earned an­nual com­pen­sa­tion of more than $1.5 mil­lion — and gave them­selves and their col­leagues per­sonal loans. “Cor­rup­tion on steroids,” is how Los An­ge­les County Dist. Atty. Steve Coo­ley de­scribed the go­ings-on in Bell at a news con­fer­ence Tues­day.

Home­own­ers and busi­nesses in Bell were over­charged on their taxes. The law­suit re­veals that the for­mer as­sis­tant city man­ager wrote a note ef­fec­tively ad­mit­ting that the city made it dif­fi­cult for res­i­dents to find out how much their pub­lic of­fi­cials were earn­ing. The coun­cil even passed an or­di­nance de­scribed as “lim­it­ing” their salaries when in fact it nearly dou­bled them.

In a pre­vi­ous ed­i­to­rial, we called for city res­i­dents to be pa­tient and not de­mand the im­me­di­ate res­ig­na­tion of cur­rent City Coun­cil mem­bers, no mat­ter what their trans­gres­sions. Do­ing so, we ar­gued, would put Bell into the hands of an in­terim city man­ager ap­pointed by the re­viled coun­cil and with no real ac­count­abil­ity to the vot­ers. Bet­ter to wait for a new elec­tion, with prop­erly vet­ted can­di­dates.

But the events of the past two weeks call for quicker ac­tion. What­ever hap­pens to the coun­cil mem­bers in court, the high-pro­file crim­i­nal and civil ac­tions against them make it nearly im­pos­si­ble for them to carry on the city’s busi­ness. For the next few months, while res­i­dents re­build their mu­nic­i­pal govern­ment, they de­serve to have trusted man­age­ment in place to over­see city busi­ness and re­store a mea­sure of calm.

We are in­trigued by the idea put forth by Brown — and backed Tues­day by the Los An­ge­les County Board of Su­per­vi­sors — that state of­fi­cials should ask a judge to put the city into the hands of an in­de­pen­dent re­ceiver. The le­gal­i­ties of such a step are un­clear. But school dis­tricts have been placed un­der state man­age­ment when their fi­nan­cial and aca­demic fail­ings have reached such pro­por­tions that they can­not con­tinue to op­er­ate un­der lo­cal lead­er­ship; Bell’s sit­u­a­tion is strik­ingly sim­i­lar.

If this does come to pass, it shouldn’t be seen as a prece­dent for the state to in­fringe on lo­cal con­trol when­ever it doesn’t like the op­er­a­tions of a city. Bell is sur­rounded by other trou­bled cities, but its dis­tress, and the lack of trusted lead­er­ship, is ex­treme. Even if the city is put in re­ceiver­ship and an out­side man­ager ap­pointed, it should be for a strictly limited time, per­haps six or eight months, un­til an elec­tion can be held.

Ul­ti­mately, it’s the re­spon­si­bil­ity of lo­cal res­i­dents to get in­volved in lo­cal pol­i­tics and monitor what their city of­fi­cials are do­ing — and how much they are be­ing paid to do it. But the se­cre­tive deal­ings of Bell’s lead­ers made it al­most im­pos­si­ble for the cit­i­zenry to stay in­formed. That makes it all the more trou­bling that, of a raft of re­form bills in­tro­duced in the wake of the Bell scan­dal, the Leg­is­la­ture failed to pass the most im­por­tant two, which would have re­quired trans­par­ent, eas­ily ac­cessed dis­clo­sure of com­pen­sa­tion re­ceived by pub­lic of­fi­cials. It’s hard for the pub­lic to do its job when the lead­ers don’t do theirs.

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