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Bell council found loophole in law to allow big salaries

The highly paid members of the Bell City Council were able to exempt themselves from state salary limits through a little-noticed city ballot measure during a special election that attracted fewer than 400 voters.

Council members in Bell earn nearly $100,000 – a salary that has prompted an inquiry by the Los Angeles County district attorney. A state law enacted in 2005 limits the pay of council members in “general law” cities, a reform prompted by the high salaries that leaders in the neighboring city of South Gate bestowed on themselves.

But the year the law passed, the Bell City Council held a special election with only one item on the ballot. It asked voters to approve a measure calling for Bell to convert to a “charter” city.

The move was billed as one that would give the city more local control, and there was no mention that it exempted Bell from the salary regulations. All five council members signed the ballot statement in favor of Measure A.

There was no mention of salaries, and no one filed an argument against the measure, according to documents obtained by The Times. The measure passed, 86% to 14%, with 336 people voting for it and 54 against. The majority of the ballots, 239, were absentee votes.

[Updated, 5:45 p.m. An earlier version of this story gave inaccurate percentages for the votes for and against the measure.]

The special election in the city of about 40,000 cost Bell $40,000 to $60,000, city officials said. Since then, salaries for council members' part-time jobs have jumped more than 50%, from $61,992 a year to at least $96,996.

“What explanation is there for why the city becomes a charter city,” said David Demerjian, who heads the D.A.’s Public Integrity Division. “Becoming a charter city certainly would give them the opportunity not to comply with that statute.”

The salaries have prompted growing scrutiny after The Times last week revealed that top city administrators were receiving high compensation. City Manager Robert Rizzo, for example, is paid $787,637 annually, making him probably the highest-paid city manager in the country.

At least one council member in office when the charter was created said Rizzo was a big advocate of the ballot measure. Rizzo “sold the idea to me,” former Councilman Victor Bello said in an interview. “The way I understood it, we would have better control of governing ourselves. We were told we would make a little more money, but I didn’t know we were going to get that much money.”

Rizzo has not returned calls to his cellphone or returned messages.

Other council members insisted that the ballot measure wasn’t about gaining higher salaries – but did not cite any ways the charter changed with way Bell did business.

“The idea of a charter is it gives a city flexibility, it gives us independence,” said then-mayor and current Councilman George Mirabel. “It enabled us to create our own vision for the future. That was the way I look at it then and now.”

-- Jeff Gottlieb

Investigating Bell: A Times special report

Is a city manager worth $800,000?

Bell residents are not happy about high salaries

High salaries fuel anger in Bell

Bell council members under investigation for $100,000 salaries

Video: Why do Bell officials make so much money? The Times' Jeff Gottlieb explains.

Bell city manager might be highest paid in nation

Photos: Protests in Bell

Comments () | Archives (30)

Great reporting here... keep up the pressure!

City officials should be prosecuted for chartering the city in favor of raising their salaries. This is the type of case that the jury and the court of law will be sympathetic to. It will also set an example that would prevent future corruption in small towns such as Bell from ever occuring again.

In addition, the evidence for fraud is simply there, considering the special election, and previous council members who received direct quotes from these corrupt leaders.

We do not want these people to receive their outrageous pensions.

Yes, the council has created their vision of their future.

“It enabled us to create our own vision for the future."
...I see us in the future becoming very rich.

What a bunch of BS. Someone knew of the loophole and used it strictly for personal gain. THATS ALL. CONTROL MY FOOT!!!

Scamming the poor, the less educated, the overworked, underpaid and largely undocumented in society for your own gain. Forgeting where you have come from and who you are beholden to, why you chose public service and that you are there truly to serve. This is governement at work, people. These are the people you admired and looked to for your needs, these are the people who care nothing about you or your city. A mayor who exclaims with pride "Look at the results!" as he stands near a free grocery line in one of the poorest cities in the West. The irony of it all. Greedily taking for power and wealth with no concern for those you claim to serve. THE OLDEST TRICK IN THE BOOK.

Folk's in the City of Bell need to Wake-Up. Take a look at this comment.........“What explanation is there for why the city becomes a charter city,” said David Demerjian, who heads the D.A.’s Public Integrity Division. “Becoming a charter city certainly would give them the opportunity not to comply with that statute.” Now, who in the heck is he to regulate the City of Bell or for that matter, any other City in Los Angeles County. Why is it so important for Cooley's henchman to be involved in local politics and instructing Southeast Local City Governments on the amount of paid salaries they are allowed to accept. Has anyone asked, "What country do you think we live in"? The salary issues here are not a criminal act nor is the the business of the County DA instructing local residents on how to vote.... General Law or Charter City........ And another message; This is a local issue with the residents of Bell and their City Government, so why is this an issue with the LA Times? Yes, you are the 4th branch of government, but when have you folks ever voiced your same opinions about County Government Officials whose salaries are just as outrageous as these? Answer...Never....How about the private industry with million dollar perks and salaries? The Times is just Racially Probing issues concerning Hispanics in Local Government who are receiving highly paid salaries like County, City and Private Corporate Positions. The issue in Bell maybe immoral, but thats stretching it a bit. This community of registered Democrats elected Democrats in Local Office. As we all know, there isn't a tax, fee or assessment that a Democrat doesn't like. As for the City of Bell residents being uninformed on this matter, give me a break. They know what they voted for.. Now live with it. Until you folks get a conservative City Council elected, these issues will not change. Grow-Up...........

"council members insisted that the ballot measure wasn’t about gaining higher salaries – but did not cite any ways the charter changed with way Bell did business."

Except - the ONLY thing they apparently did differently was... raise their own salaries!

Pretty obvious - and I don't even live in Bell.

I hope the locals throw the book at 'em!!! Fire them ALL - clean house, folks!!

Well, that's amazing. Hearty congratulations to the LA Times for investigating and breaking this story. Now, where are my tar and feathers?

Just wanted to point out that if the vote on the measure was 336-54, that means 86% were in favor and 14% were against. As it currently stands, the total percentage of the vote (87% + 54%) adds up to 141%.

There's only one way justice can be served to these fools... string them up from the flagpole at city hall.

Please correct the percentage on which the vote passed. It is mathematically impossible to pass by 87% to 54%.

thats fraud.

Mr. Rizzo must not only be the highest paid city manager in the country, but the highest paid public official in the country, elected or appointed, with a salary nearly double that of the President of the United States.

Loopholes? Aha! Dang, these city council members, especially Rizzo, are extremely devious and tricky bastards, aren't they? To the average citizen, the ballot measure didn't sound like a bad idea, but who knew the taxpayers would get screwed so badly like this? This was the council members' way of enriching themselves while letting the rest of the city suffer. Extremely disgusting and revolting behavior is the only way to put it. These council members are no different than those fat cats on Wall Street who brought the financial system to its knees.

Out of curiosity just 'who' is 'Robert Rizzo'? Where did he come from? How has he come to rule Bell? How did Police Chief Randy Adams earn almost $500,000 per year?

If the City of Maywood hadn't offered to have the City of Bell assume policing their municipality none of this would have been known. A meeting was held re. that offer and that is when the public began to look at the annual outlays by the City of Bell. Thus the awful plundering of the poor citizens of Bell was finally known by them and all the rest of us.

Again who is Robert Rizzo? Where is he from? How did he get his hands on the mayors office of Bell?

This Rizzo guy is quite the silver tongued devil. Selling the charter city concept in fluffy terms...... he knew exactly what would happen! He's the one that needs to go down the drain first!

Sounds to me like Rizzo had a puppet council and became czar of Bell. Hard to be too terribly disgusted with the Assistant City Manager and Police Chief when they were hired well after the fact. They would have been crazy to turn down the salaries Rizzo offered them. Try to tell me you would have walked away from that kind of money - yeah right.

This is disgusting. As if Bell were an exemplary city. With all the problems Bell and the county have, these people should be force to resign without pensions and return as much of that money as humanly possible. We can not be laying off teachers and city workers while these pigs pocket that type of money. I really hope the DA can build a case against all involved and prosecute them. This is beyond outrage and disgust.

Dear Council Members,

Its gonna suck being you! Good luck in your future endeavors.

I wonder if a case can be made to prosecute those council members under the RICO Act?

SgtJohn....you must be one of the ones who got to double his salary thanks to the measure that was pushed on the voters of Bell...Interesting they didnt disclose or discuss the salary increases..just talked about how it would give the elected officials more "flexibility"

these reps are crooks...whether it was illegal or not they have a fiduciary duty here..and its not to line their own pockets...i say fire them all and hire people who really want to help the city..my guess is most of these clowns probably cant wait to move out of Bell anyway...so lets give them a head start!!!

California Politician = CROOK .

I think its great. This is a shining example of what happens when you don't stay involved and connected with whats going on in your community. Only 400 people voted on the original charter ballot measure, out of a city of 40,000 people. Seems that more than 53 residents are against it now. Where were they on election day? Only 53 people initially voted against the measure. This should serve as a warning, AGAIN. Remember current state law was written after similiar abuses in neighboring city Southgate. Now people are crying and wailing for justice. Try getting off your lazy butts and VOTE.

Is SgtJohnMStryker on the Bell payroll? Inquiring minds want to know.

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