Bell refuses to turn over records to The Times -- or to a city councilman
Despite vows to be open with the public in the wake of a salary scandal, the city of Bell is refusing to turn over public records to The Times, community activists and even a sitting councilman.
“They continue to keep us in the dark,” said Councilman Lorenzo Velez, who has been critical of the high salaries paid to top Bell administrators and other City Council members. “The problem is a continuation of so many years of doing whatever they wanted in City Hall.”
The Times and other have requested records involving elections, budgets, city financing and salaries that are typically available for viewing at most city halls -- and in some cases can even be found online. The city has filled some of The Times' public records requests, but it has neither responded to the vast majority of the requests nor given an explanation for its denial as required by law.
Among the requests are requests for basic information such as the salaries of new interim City Manager Pedro Carrillo and finance director Lourdes Garcia.
Under state law, public records have to be made available at least for viewing. Karl Olson, an attorney who specializes in public records litigation, said that a formal request should not be necessary to see administrators' salaries, and that the information should only take minutes to get.
“It’s not like it will take them a bunch of time to figure out how much they make,” Olson said. “Most people know how much they make. It seems what we have in Bell is some folks who paid themselves outrageous salaries, and they’re mad they got caught.”
Bell’s lawyers have not responded to The Times’ attorney, and the newspaper on Monday was preparing to file a Public Records Act lawsuit to ask a judge to compel the city to disclose the records. City Clerk Rebecca Valdez has previously said that Bell’s priority is to meet a deadline for records set by the state attorney general’s office.
“For them to essentially say 'We’re being investigated for breaking the law, and so we don’t have time to give you the records' -- that seems outrageous to me,” said Olson, who won a landmark case before the state Supreme Court three years ago involving public records related to police and other government employees’ salaries.
Bell, a city of about 37,000 residents in southeast L.A. County, has been roiled by protests since top administrators’ salaries were made public last month. The upset prompted the resignations of top administrators including City Manager Robert Rizzo, who made nearly $800,000 a year.
--Ruben Vives and Hector Becerra