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Bell voters hit the polls to decide city’s future

March 8, 2011 |  9:30 am

A voter arrives at the Iglesia De Dios polling location to cast her ballot in Bell election.

As the polls opened Tuesday morning in Bell, a steady stream of residents arrived to cast their votes on whether to recall councilmembers charged with corruption and decide which candidates can help revive the scandal-ridden city.

A couple of years ago, candidates could win with just 1,200 votes. Today, there are 10,485 registered voters in Bell, and local activists are expecting turnout close to 60%. Eighteen candidates are running for the five council seats in the city's most crowded and contentious race in recent memory -– and its most publicized.

One candidate, Miguel Sanchez, a 34-year-old teacher's aide, died unexpectedly Friday from complications from the flu. He told friends he wanted to drop out of the race because of the stress. His running mate, Mario Rivas, said it's possible the pressure from the campaign was too much for him.

In recent days, the special election took on a far more divisive tone, with allegations of "tea party" and labor money being tossed about as warring sides fought over who should control the city.

There's a lot on the line in Bell, which has grabbed headlines almost nonstop since summer, when The Times first reported that some councilmembers were earning $100,000 salaries and then-City Administrator Robert Rizzo was earning nearly $800,000.

Eight current and former city officials are facing charges they looted public funds, and Bell remains the focus of various local and federal investigations.

"Everything that's been going on with the scandals and all these little things that have been coming out, it just encouraged me to come out and make a difference -– see if we can vote for somebody better and improve the city," said Diana Canales, 35, who has lived in Bell since she was 19 and showed up to cast her ballot Tuesday at Iglesia de Dios. "I tried to make the right choices. I'm just hoping they do good."

A new council will have to work to regain the public's trust after being rocked by scandal after scandal. State Controller John Chiang, for example, has found the city illegally taxed residents by nearly $6 million, racking up inappropriate fees on such items as property taxes and business fees.

And for at least a decade, officials in Bell arbitrarily required some businesses to make payments to the city totaling tens of thousands of dollars annually.

These practices -– and demands that the money be refunded -– have left Bell with less revenue and depleted reserves. A county audit said the city faces a $2.16-milllion deficit by June. But the figure could double because of mounting legal bills stemming from the salary scandal.

Pedro Carrillo, Bell's interim chief administrative officer, has outlined a number of drastic options, including a controversial proposal to disband the Police Department and contract with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

The future of the Bell Police Department, itself the focus of a federal civil rights investigation, has been one of the hot-button campaign issues.

Canales, for one, said she voted for candidates Mario Rivas and Nestor Valencia, members of the "Justice for Bell" slate that has said it wants to disband the Police Department.

"I think maybe we should start with a clean slate all the way around," Canales said.

Elide Martinez, 58, who has lived in town for 37 years and cast her ballot Tuesday, said she supports the department.

"I don't want to change it. I super support them," Martinez said.

Martinez said she's been saddened by recent events and by city leaders who didn't "do right."

"I just came to vote for my community, Bell," she said. "I love it."


Attorneys blocked from questioning former city attorney

City clerk testifies Rizzo asked her to doctor his contracts

Ex-city attorney says that's not his signature on Rizzo's salary contracts

-- Kimi Yoshino

Photo: A voter arrives at the Iglesia De Dios polling location to cast her ballot in Bell election. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times