Amid allegations that Bell has reverted to the financial trickery that made the small, working-class city a symbol for municipal corruption, Bell city administrators will launch an online tool Tuesday that gives the public deeper access to its finances.
The software program converts and organizes financial data into user-friendly formats so that taxpayers can track how their money is collected, transferred and how much is used for police, sanitation and other municipal services.
Bell joins a growing number of cities such as New York, Chicago and other towns in California that have embraced the "open data" movement. Las week, Los Angeles launched its own website with similar features.
"I think a large amount of citizens want to know more about their government and how it works, and this will be a useful tool," Bell City Manager Doug Willmore said.
More than two dozen cities in the state have joined OpenGov Inc., a Silicon Valley company that created the software. Other cities include Beverly Hills, Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks, according to the company's website.
Through annual subscriptions, public agencies and districts can send their financial data to the company, which uploads it into their system for city and public use. Taxpayers can peruse the data by funds, departments or account types with icons and drop-down menus. It puts the data into charts designed to help citizens understand the information more easily.
OpenGov Chief Executive Officer Zachary Bookman says the program can be accessed anytime, even during council meetings.
"What the tool does and what it's doing — not just for Bell but other major cities — is that it turns conversations to fact, it focuses on numbers," Bookman said.
In Bell, reformers have been calling for financial transparency since the town was engulfed in scandal three years ago, when eight municipal leaders were accused of drawing huge salaries, collecting generous benefits and even lending city money. In some cases, contracts for ranking administrators were designed so the public could not determine what they were actually earning.
The former city administrator, Robert Rizzo, has pleaded no contest to 69 corruption-related charges, five of six former council members were convicted of misappropriating city funds and the former second in command is standing trial on 13 felony counts.
The city revamped its website earlier this year, publishing vendor contracts, city checks and other public records that, in the past, were only accessible through public records requests. Council meetings are now streamed live on the city's website.
"We think it's important for good financial oversight, which of course prevents the kinds of things that were occurring in Bell prior to the change in leadership," said JoAnne Speers, executive director of the Institute for Local Government.
She said the new feature will enable residents to participate in the decision-making process in a more informed manner, which makes their input more effective.
But the launch comes amid renewed controversy in the city of Bell.
Early this month, Vice Mayor Ana Maria Quintana publicly accused city administrators of hiding legal fees from residents.
Quintana claimed that in the last fiscal cycle, the council approved $300,000 in legal expenses, but that the city exceeded the amount by $1.5 million. She said the council was never told about the matter.
But her council colleagues and city administrators say that her allegations are false and misleading and that the council did approve the spending.
Councilman Ali Saleh said he hopes the new tool will reinforce public trust in government in Bell.
"This is really something all cities should be doing in order to cut through the political spin and allow the public and electorate to focus on the issues and business of governance in an informed and substantial manner," Saleh said.