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City of Bell's second chance

How a reform-minded Bell can leave behind its embarrassing past and become a model city of civic engagement

Since the Bell corruption scandal broke four years ago, the tiny town has transformed itself from one of the most closed to one of the most transparent cities in the nation.

Evidence of the turnaround can be found on the city's website, where concerned citizens seeking more information about Bell's finances and ethics policies can click on a button on the home page labeled, appropriately enough, "Transparency."

This year, Doug Willmore — brought in as Bell's city manager in 2012 — received an award from a national organization of city and county managers for "his work to put the city of Bell back on an ethical track."

These are good examples of a city trying to move forward. However, more needs to be done so that Bell's citizens can play the role that democracy requires of them.

An absence of citizen engagement in local politics helped cause the Bell scandal, which has been called the most massive case of public corruption in Los Angeles County. In the decade prior to the crisis, voter turnout in regularly scheduled elections was in the single digits. And only 400 people — 1% of Bell's approximately 40,000 residents — voted in a 2005 special election that turned Bell into a charter city. This change, pushed by the city manager and council, made it possible for the city to circumvent the state's restrictions on salaries. It was a pivotal point in the emerging scandal.

Civic disengagement is not unique to Bell. For instance, only 21% of registered voters turned out in the 2013 Los Angeles mayor's race. But Bell could serve as a testing ground for ways to improve voter turnout.

Some ideas to consider: Adopting all-mail ballot elections, holding elections on weekends and making an aggressive effort to get out the vote. The seeds of community engagement could be planted through classes in Bell schools that teach civics and make a point of focusing on local government, and through developing a program to recruit and train future civic leaders.

Bell is ideally suited to be a laboratory for civic reform. It is fairly small and therefore manageable, near major research universities that could test out new theories, and surrounded by media outlets that can provide a forum for the discussion of findings. Individuals, organizations and state agencies that care about the importance of good government could also get involved. Most important, the community has a powerful incentive to put its embarrassing past behind it.

The scandal began to unfold in the summer of 2010 when The Times published the first in a series of articles about how Bell officials had enriched themselves at the public's expense. The newspaper was rewarded with a Pulitzer Prize for public service. But with traditional media shrinking, Bell needs to figure out a way to deal with the day-to-day shortfall in news coverage of city business, a major contributing factor to the scandal. The community could help out by coming up with new ways to communicate news to its residents.

Of course, money is at the heart of the Bell scandal. City leaders plundered its coffers of millions and borrowed recklessly, driving the city close to bankruptcy and leaving it with $130 million in debt. They gave themselves lavish salaries and benefits while illegally raising taxes on city residents, who are among the poorest in Los Angeles County. Five former City Council members received felony convictions and the longtime former city manager was found guilty of corruption.

When California Controller John Chiang issued his latest report on Bell in May 2013 — three years after the scandal broke — he said that Bell had made some progress but noted that "many of the same fiscal management and internal control lapses that allowed Bell to fail its citizens remain unaddressed today."

The controller's concerns about how local governments handle money are not limited to Bell. Chiang has sought legislation that would extend his authority over local agencies he deems fiscally mismanaged. With effort, Bell could become the "gold standard" for fiscal management, an example for other local governments to follow.

Many of the factors that contributed to the Bell scandal are mirrored in other cities whose citizens could potentially benefit from learning to ask the right questions about democracy and city finances. Bell should commit itself to becoming a model local government and a testing ground for making that possible.

Fred Smoller teaches political science at Chapman University. He will host a conference on the Bell scandal at the school on Feb. 19.

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