Salary Scandal In Bell, Calif., Ripples Across State
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Until recently, few people knew of Bell, California; population barely 40,000. But that all changed after the Los Angeles Times revealed that Bell's city manager was making nearly $800,000 a year, and more than a million if you count benefits. Today, the city manager and a couple of other highly-compensated executives are gone.
But the scandal in Bell continues to spread, as NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.
(Soundbite of a roadway)
INA JAFFE: Bell is less than three square-miles, mostly Latino and working-class. It's part of a cluster of about half a dozen nearly identical towns in the industrial heartland of Los Angeles County. The commercial streets are dotted with muffler shops and fast-food joints. The residential streets are dotted with bright red lawn signs that say: Resign.
Those were distributed by BASTA, enough in Spanish. In English it stands for the Bell Association to Stop the Abuse.
Since the scandal broke, people have been gathering outside of city council meetings. Thats where BASTA leader Cristina Garcia was talking with longtime Bell resident Danny Harper about a petition drive to recall city council members.
Ms. CRISTINA GARCIA (Spokesperson, BASTA): So we're still on schedule for the end of August, as you were thinking...
Mr. DANNY HARPER: And whats the minimum amount of signatures you need?
Ms. GARCIA: Two thousand five hundred.
Mr. HARPER: Oh, that shouldnt be any trouble at all - get that in one day.
JAFFE: BASTA has also organized residents to turn out en masse for city council meetings, as they did before the one last night.
Unidentified People: (Chanting) Fuera.
JAFFE: Fuera, they chanted, out. Bell residents are angry at council members for allowing the apparent looting of the city treasury and paying for it by making property tax rates among the highest in Los Angeles County.
Four of the five council members also paid themselves $100,000 a year for their part-time jobs. They cut that salary by 90 percent, but it hasn't satisfied the residents. Even the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of the council meeting was a platform for their wrath.
Unidentified People: One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
JAFFE: During the meeting, five stone-faced council members listened to resident after resident denounce them.
Mr. MARCELINA SETA(ph): You guys have made Bell the epicenter of corruption in all of the United States of America.
(Soundbite of applause)
JAFFE: That's Marcelina Seta.
Mr. SETA: What I want from all four of you tonight, I'm giving you a different deadline. The deadline is that I want all four of you to resign today. I want you guys to resign today.
JAFFE: But Mayor Oscar Hernandez told the crowd point-blank that resignation was not in the council's plans. And during a break in the proceedings, Councilmember Luis Artiga defended the $100,000 salaries he and three of his fellow council members received until a few weeks ago.
Mr. LUIS ARTIGA (Council Member, Bell, California): It wasn't a part-time work, where they paid the council. They paid it to go 24/7, be out there for the community.
JAFFE: If, as one resident said, Bell is the epicenter of civic corruption, the tremors have been felt throughout the state. Controller John Chiang has ordered all California cities to post employee salaries on their websites. He's also ordered Bell officials to roll back property taxes, saying they're illegally high, and there are criminal investigations.
Unidentified Man #3: If you have information about possible illegal conduct on the part of Bell city officials, please share this information with our office.
JAFFE: That's the attorney general's office, and its hotline went up when stories of vote fraud in Bell began to surface. The Los Angeles district attorney is also investigating. And Willie Aguilar(ph) has been telling them both how he was recruited by three members of the city council to collect absentee ballots at voters' homes.
Mr. WILLIE AGUILAR: And I come to understand and learn that what we did was not right in going after absentee ballots, but we were instructed how to have the people fill them out, where to fill them out and where to sign. If not, we had extras and so on and so forth.
JAFFE: How many voters did you contact?
Mr. AGUILAR: I would say about 200 to 300 people.
JAFFE: The fallout from the Bell scandal and the many investigations could take a long time. Meanwhile, Bell residents are planning to take matters into their own hands. You can tell by those bright red law signs that say resign. People have started turning them around so the other side shows, the one that says recall.
Ina Jaffe, NPR News.
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