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Bell city leaders approve reforms in wake of salary scandal

August 17, 2010 |  8:08 am

After nearly nine hours, the Bell City Council voted early Tuesday to roll back property taxes, cede control of the next municipal election to L.A. County and cut copying fees for public records -- the latest concessions by leaders in the wake of a salary scandal.

The set of reforms come as local and state authorities have opened investigations into City Hall finances, the high salaries of top administrators and possible election fraud.

Several hundred people descended Monday night on City Hall to attend the meeting, which continued late into the night and early-morning hours.

For the first time, the city also hired a court reporter to begin recording the meetings.

Angered by repeated disclosures of fiscal irresponsibility, residents spent hours lashing out at city leaders, demanding that they step down, with the exception of Councilman Lorenzo Velez, an early proponent of reforms who was not drawing the high salaries of his council colleagues.

One man, decked out in a colorful clown costume, referred to the group as the “City Clowncil.”

“If you have any dignity,” resident Violeta Alvarez told council members during the public comment period, “you need to resign.”


Last week, state Controller John Chiang said the city illegally raised its property taxes in 2007 and must return $2.9 million it has collected since then. He also ordered Bell to immediately reduce the city’s “retirement tax,” which the council increased to cover rising pension costs for its employees.

The proposed reduction would apply to the round of taxes due in November. The owner of a home in Bell with an assessed value of $400,000 would save about $360 a year because of the rollback.

The Times reported that while top city officials were earning some of the highest salaries in the nation for their jobs, residents were paying higher taxes than all but one city in Los Angeles County.

The salaries and Bell’s hefty property taxes contrast sharply with residents' financial standing. Median household income in Bell, about 10 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, is $40,556 -- well below the countywide average of $57,152.

Former City Manager Robert Rizzo, who resigned last month with the police chief and assistant city manager, was earning nearly $800,000 a year and stands to make about $600,000 annually in retirement.

Five city employees had salaries higher than $350,000. At least two of them were present Monday night at the council meeting.

An hour before the meeting began, hundreds of community members swarmed the grounds of City Hall with signs that read: "We don't want you!" and "Rizzo's Puppets."  The rally was organized by the Bell Assn.  to Stop the Abuse, or BASTA. 

Despite disapproval by most residents, city leaders voted to designate Jamie Casso of the law firm Meyers Nave as interim city attorney and Pedro Carrillo of Urban Associates Inc. as acting city manager. Velez cast the sole dissenting vote on both items.

“Please be assured that members of my firm and I will fully investigate all legal issues surrounding the recent events without favoritism or bias to anyone,” Casso said in a statement he read aloud at the meeting.

“We are turning over every rock, opening every file cabinet and analyzing every document to find out what happened,” he added. “And then we will take appropriate action to restore dignity, trust and faith in City Hall.”

-- Ruben Vives and Jeff Gottlieb in Bell

Photo: Jesus Casas stands in support of a fellow Bell resident's comments during the City Council meeting Monday night. The council members, having already cut their own pay 90%, were discussing other reforms. Credit: Christina House / For the Los Angeles Times