Bell, one of the poorest cities in Los Angeles County, pays its top officials some of the highest salaries in the nation, including nearly $800,000 annually for its city manager, according to documents reviewed by The Times.
In addition to the $787,637 salary of Chief Administrative Officer Robert Rizzo, Bell pays Police Chief Randy Adams $457,000 a year, about 50% more than Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck or Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and more than double New York City's police commissioner. Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia makes $376,288 annually, more than most city managers.
Top officials have routinely received hefty annual raises in recent years. Rizzo's contract calls for 12% raises each July, the same as his top deputy, according to documents obtained under the California Public Records Act.
Rizzo, who has run Bell's day-to-day civic affairs since 1993, was unapologetic about his salary.
"If that's a number people choke on, maybe I'm in the wrong business," he said. "I could go into private business and make that money. This council has compensated me for the job I've done."
Spaccia agreed, adding: "I would have to argue you get what you pay for."
Bell Mayor Oscar Hernandez defended the salaries. "Our city is one of the best in the area. That is the result of the city manager. It's not because I say it. It's because my community says it."
Hernandez and other council members said the city was near bankruptcy when Rizzo came aboard 17 years ago. Since then, they said, he has put Bell on sound financial footing, with its general fund nearly tripling to about $15 million.
"Our streets are cleaner, we have lovely parks, better lighting throughout the area, our community is better," Hernandez said. "These things just don't happen, they happen because he had a vision and made it happen."
Bell made headlines in recent weeks when the city of 37,000 agreed to take over operations of the neighboring city of Maywood, which fired most of its employees and disbanded its police department when it could not obtain insurance.
Located about 10 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, Bell has a population that is about 90% Latino and 53% foreign-born. Its per capita income is about half that for the U.S.
Experts in city government said they were amazed at the salaries the city pays, particularly Rizzo's. "I have not heard anything close to that number in terms of compensation or salary," said Dave Mora, West Coast regional director of the International City/County Management Assn., and a retired city manager.
By comparison, Manhattan Beach, a far wealthier city with about 7,000 fewer people, paid its most recent city manager $257,484 a year. The city manager of Long Beach, with a population close to 500,000, earns $235,000 annually. Los Angeles County Chief Executive William T Fujioka makes $338,458.
The salaries do not appear to violate any laws, said Dave Demerjian, head of the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Public Integrity Division. State law governs how much city council members can be paid, but not the amounts that council members decide to pay administrators, Demerjian said.
The district attorney is investigating Bell over the hefty compensation of its City Council members — about $100,000 a year for part-time positions. Normally, council members in a city the size of Bell would be paid about $400 a month, Demerjian said.
The council has increased its compensation by paying members for serving on a variety of city agencies, including the Community Redevelopment Agency, the Community Housing Authority, the Planning Commission, the Public Financing Authority, the Surplus Property Authority and the Solid Waste and Recycling Authority.
Demerjian said city records show each council member receives $7,873.25 per month for sitting on those boards
Records indicate that the boards of those agencies perform little work and that board meetings take place during council meetings, though the names of some of the agencies seldom appear.
In some years, the council would hold separate meetings for those agencies, and they would sometimes last no more than a minute. On July 31, 2006, four agencies each met for one minute. On March 3, 2008, the redevelopment agency meeting was called to order at 7:21 p.m. and adjourned at 7:22 p.m.
Councilman Luis Artiga, who was appointed to the council 15 months ago to fill an unexpired term, said he had no idea how much he would be paid. When he received his first check, he thought it was "a miracle from God."
Artiga, who is pastor of Bell Community Church, said he uses about half his salary to pay the church's mortgage.
Rizzo received his bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley and a master's in public administration from Cal State East Bay.
Council members hired Rizzo in 1993 from the High Desert city of Hesperia as interim chief administrative officer with a starting salary of $72,000 a year. By September 2004, he was being paid $300,000 a year. Ten months later, his salary jumped 47% to $442,000.
His salary continued climbing $52,000 a year until July 1, 2008, when Rizzo received his usual salary increase and signed an addendum to his contract that gave him a 5% raise in September and guaranteed 12% increases each July.
His last raise was $84,389.76. Next July, he will receive a $94,516 pay hike.
Rizzo defended his salary and that of his staff and the council by saying they don't receive car or cellphone allowances and must pay their own way to out-of-town conferences.
However, according to their contracts, Rizzo, Spaccia and Adams can be reimbursed for their expenses. Bell council members are also eligible for reimbursements as board members of several city commissions, according to city resolutions.
Adams, who said he spent $6,000 of his own money to buy furniture for his office, was hired after retiring as the police chief in Glendale. His salary of $215,304 more than doubled when he took the job in Bell.
Spaccia was hired July 1, 2003, at $102,310. A year later, she was making $130,000. She currently earns $376,203 and gets the same 12% annual increases as Rizzo.
Spaccia has been on leave since February while serving as acting city manager for Bell's troubled neighbor Maywood, with her salary being paid by Bell's taxpayers.
"We have a neighbor in trouble," said Rizzo, a short heavy-set man with reddish-brown hair. "If your neighbor's yard is messed up, it brings down your property values. Is it a unique situation? Definitely."
On top of his salary, Rizzo recently received an added boost — the council voted to give him an extra week's vacation. He now gets five weeks.