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Bell council found loophole in law to allow big salaries

July 22, 2010 |  3:59 pm

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

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