The City of Bell and its high paying ways have become a topic everybody is talking about lately. Or at least those of us daft enough to care about such things. Some folks discuss it with a kind of "I told you so" glee that stems from their personal belief that things are quite rotten in the not so hallowed halls of government, and have been for a while now. And the people who work in those halls laugh when they talk about Bell as well, but in a nervous sort of way. As if they aren't certain that we don't believe they're not that different from our wayward neighbors down the road.
And it keeps getting worse for the once well compensated officials from the City of Bell. It's not just the ridiculously inflated salaries anymore, or the fact that they were leading lives of out of town suburban splendour on the back of that city's struggling and largely minority working class poor. It could very well be that they kept their elective offices through election rigging and fraud. This from yesterdays Los Angeles Times:
Lawsuit against Bell suggests voter fraud in 2009 election - A lawsuit filed Monday by a former Bell police officer makes a variety of serious allegations about city officials and suggests voter fraud in a 2009 election.
According to the lawsuit, filed by James Corcoran, off-duty police officers in Bell distributed absentee ballots in a 2009 municipal election and told would-be voters which candidates to support. The former police officer alleges in the suit that he was forced out of his job of 25 years in retaliation for informing state and federal authorities about the officers' actions and reporting alleged misconduct involving City Administrator Robert Rizzo and other city officials.
Corcoran alleged that in 2009 he reported to the California Secretary of State and the FBI "that off-duty police officers were taking absentee ballots and providing them to voters to fill out" and that officers were instructing individuals how to vote. He also asserted that ballots were filled out for people who were dead.
There has been some speculation that there are similarities between Bell and our very own Sierra Madre. Of course, we're not talking about salaries here. Even Sandy Levin's part time position here doesn't pay quite that much. But the way the two cities are set up, and how they are both managed and run, do have a few interesting similarities. It apparently is a government model developed many years ago, and shared by more than a few cities here in California.
Here are a few paragraphs from a very insightful article on the California Planning & Development Report site that shed some light on this idea. Entitled "Bell: The Latest 'Suburb of Extraction,'" its author, Bill Fulton, a former elected city official from Ventura, shares these thoughts:
Much of the blame, of course, lies with the individuals involved, who have taken a highhanded approach with taxpayer funds and, at least so far, seem pretty unrepentant about it. But much of the blame also lies with California's Byzantine system of local government, which gives officials in a small, poor city - elected and appointed - what detectives might call opportunity and motive to misbehave.
The motive lies in California's squeaky-clean, progressive-era approach to local elected service, which assumes that you can, as it were, de-politicize politics. Elected officials are supposed to act like a board of directors, not like political hacks. Governmental managers are supposed to be highly trained professionals, not political cronies. Managers should be well-paid for their efficient, productive work; and electeds should be viewed essentially as volunteers, as if they were serving on a nonprofit board.
Pretty much describes what we have here, both in its best, and worst, possible incarnations. Our General Plan struggles can be seen as a great example of this dynamic in action. Professional staff puts pressure on part time elected officials to bring in expensive consultants (who work in a way that city staff finds compatible) to do the job, effectively removing the governing process from citizen control. But residents, sensing that their priorities are getting shoved aside by those who answer to outside forces with potentially hostile agendas, also lean on the City Council. And it is when the elected officials decide to partner with the employees and other associated interests rather than the people they were elected to serve that we begin to see the distrust and even hostility to government that exists in Sierra Madre today.
Of course, in Bell that motivation was simply money. Here in Sierra Madre it is, strangely enough, slavishly serving the interests of developers, big energy corporations, realty concerns, and Sacramento. And I say strangely because I've never quite figured out what it is that motivates these people to work so tirelessly against the wishes of the very people they were elected to serve.
The California system also discourages constituents from being watchdogs in that both governmental and financial system is cumbersome and bafflingly complicated. Different city governments provide services in all kinds of different ways. Some have a police department, some contract with the sheriff; some run fire departments, libraries and parks, while others are located in a special district where the city has nothing to do with providing fire, library, or parks service. So its hard to know what your city does or where your tax money goes. And all California cities are subject to thousands of laws that even the most assiduous city attorney has a hard time keeping up with. A complicated system belongs to those who understand it and, frankly, makes it possible for the insiders to game the system.
Gaming the system being a full time passion of our friends in the Downtown Investors Club.
The notion that city government is too complicated and difficult for the average resident to comprehend, and that everything needs to be done by specialized and highly paid experts who know better than the taxpayers, seems to be endemic in cities such as ours. That was the notion officials in Bell used to justify their salaries, and it is also what is used as the rationale for much of what we see coming out of our City Hall. Of course, these matters aren't really all that hard to understand, and honestly I think that whole "Wizard of Oz" man-behind-the-curtain routine has become pretty hilarious myself. All you need to do is put in the time to unravel the nonsense. Because that is what most of it is.
One more thing. On the latimes.com site there is a thoughtful piece on access to public documents. As someone who spends a lot of time scouring the internet looking for information to use on this blog, having cities put more of their documents on-line seems like a pretty good idea to me.
On the media: Let's put more public documents online - Thanks to WikiLeaks, we now know more about the war in Afghanistan than about how much public officials are paid in Los Angeles County. Some private companies and citizens are trying to change that ... (later) The only shame is that we have truckloads of needed detail about a war half a world away but only the barest clue about government hanky panky right under our noses. Think the recent salary scandal in Bell, which paid its top officials like junior executives at a Fortune 500 firm. Is there any reason why every city in California shouldn't put up a Web posting with the salaries of top employees and elected officials? How about a state law that says the information must be posted online?
I personally think that is a marvelous idea. An example of how this would be of great use here in Sierra Madre would be with an aspect of our ongoing struggle to contain City Hall's endless enthusiasm for a huge water rate hike.
On the City of Sierra Madre website there is a brief discussion about the $10 million dollar matching grant we would receive should the city raise $8 million through the water rate increase. Originally the City website identified the source of that grant as the Federal Environmental Protect Agency. The EPA, like many Federal agencies of that kind has, under the Obama administration, been an advocate for things such as Smart Growth. Which is a kind of woolly notion claiming that we can build our way out of things such as Global Warming. This is, of course, the core notion behind SB375. I believe it is also what informs John and Joe's water rate hysteria. We wrote about this here on The Tattler a few weeks back. Which must have had some effect because, if you go back to that same place now on the city's site, you will see that "Federal EPA" has been changed to read "Federal Agency."
If Sacramento were to pass a law that would require City Halls such as ours to put its documents on-line, we would be allowed to read the Federal (or is it EPA?) documents about that grant and what strings - in any - are attached to obtaining this cash. Federal money is often used an inducement to get the folks receiving the cash to adhere to Washington policies. Which in this instance could very well be decidedly big development oriented.
So is that the case here? Will this $10 million in Federal money come with an obligation that we accommodate SB 375 style so-called "Smart Growth" development here in Sierra Madre? To know that for certain we'd need to look at the Federal grant documents. And that is the potential smoking gun we have not been allowed to see.