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Bell trial: Ex-councilman says Rizzo forced him to take benefits

Bell cole
Former Bell City Councilman George Cole testified Thursday about the extraordinary retirement benefits he received through the city, and the great job that former City Manager Robert Rizzo did in his early years in the small, working-class city.

Cole said he was surprised in 2008 when the city placed $15,500 in his deferred account, similar to a 401(k).

He said he told Rizzo, “'Please take it out.' He told me, ‘Go ahead, you can have it.' … I was really upset and I did not want that money.”

FULL COVERAGE: Bell corruption trial

He said Rizzo refused to remove the money from the fund.

In addition, the city in 2004 paid the state pension system $36,648 to buy Cole an additional five years of service time. Cole was one of 11 Bell administrators for whom the city bought service time.

The California Public Employees’ Retirement System has said that while an employee can purchase time, a city cannot buy it for them. Retirement payments increase with the number of years of service. CalPERS -- the state's largest public pension program -- has disallowed the service time the city bought, saying the buy-ins were not council approved.

Cole testified that he had voted for the buy-in program but his attorney, Ronald Kaye, quickly countered:  “I don’t think you voted for it.”

Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy replied: “Are you testifying Mr. Kaye?”

Cole also was among the 40 or so Bell employees who were scheduled to receive additional payments through Bell’s own supplemental retirement plan, established in 2003. In combination with the CalPERS pension, the payout was among the best retirement plans for non-safety employees in the state.

The council never approved the plan.

A judge ruled for the city this month in a lawsuit filed by employees who wanted payments from the plan.

Cole is one of six former council members who have been charged with being paid for serving on boards  that seldom met, boosting their salaries to nearly $100,000.

Cole’s top annual salary was $67,000, his attorney said. He retired in 2008 but had not accepted pay for his final year on the council.

The former councilman praised Rizzo for his early work in Bell as the chief administrative officer.

“From the time he started, he was able to accomplish things other managers previous to him said couldn’t be done or were unable to do,” Cole said.

He said Rizzo created a day-care program, repaired the streets and went to great efforts to keep the city clean. “Every day, every bus stop in the city was pressure washed, cleaned and sanitized and the trash removed,” Cole said.

Rizzo put a fence around the city’s largest park so parents wouldn’t be afraid their children would run into the street, Cole said.

Cole defended council salary increases being placed on the consent calendar, usually the time where routine and non-controversial items are voted on without discussion.

It is highly unusual for a city to place an increase in council salaries on the consent calendar.

The 63-year-old said the agendas, minutes and staff reports were always available to the public at city hall and at the library.

“I never tried to hide what we were doing,” Cole said.

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Ex-San Diego mayor gambled away nearly $1 billion, prosecutors say

-- Jeff Gottlieb and Corina Knoll

Photo: George Cole on the opening day of the trial. Credit: Irfan Kahn/Los Angeles Times.

 
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