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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)

Courts need to recognize that politicians and high-level city officials are fiduciaries (they control money that belongs to the taxpayer) and allow civil lawsuits that require said politicians and officials to pay back any excess salary, waste, or money spent toward personal, rather than public benefit, with interest.

There are cities in California with 10 times the population that pay their Chief of Police 1/3 what Bell pays theirs...Wasn't anybody paying attention? If these people retire, their retirement pay will be based on their highest yearly salary...There may be nothing the people can do except vote them all out and make the necessary changes...Someone should have been watching...The same thing is happening in DC, wait until your new tax bill arrives in 2011...

SgtJohnMStryker the reason we have a free press is to allow the LAT and other newspapers to investigate, discover and report fraud and criminal activity just like they did. Without a free press and informed electorate we might still be ruled by England or worse. Please don't try and bring race into this issue to rally the troops. These little southeast cities and big ol' L.A. need protection from people like Rizzo, Hernandez, little Tony Villar and the like and I can't wait to congratulate the LAT, Vives and Gottlieb when the journalism accolades start pouring in. Job well done, but I still miss the Examiner.

Clearly these guys were violating the Brown Act- the one that prevents closed room meetings. There is no way that they all elevated there salaries, endorsed this secret ballot measure, got the police to distribute absentee ballots and coerse voters, and plot and scheme in open chambers. That means they were meeting in private, illegally. Perhaps that can be used to invalidate all of these decisions quickly. Long term, the fraud and criminal enterprise and convictions, as seriously in "RICO" (this is a racketeering organization if ever there was one) ought to be used to throw these bums in jail, invalidate there employment contracts and there pensions.

Frankly, I don't understand why the Feds are not charging them already.

I don't understand why the Gerry Brown, the CA attorney general is dragging his feet while these guys shred documents. Is Gerry Brown's office really that incompetent?

This is why school board members,school superintendents, city council members , and all city and county managers and jobs salarys should be posted publically at all tims.

 
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L.A. Now is the Los Angeles Times’ breaking news section for Southern California. It is produced by more than 80 reporters and editors in The Times’ Metro section, reporting from the paper’s downtown Los Angeles headquarters as well as bureaus in Costa Mesa, Long Beach, San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, Riverside, Ventura and West Los Angeles.
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