Bell leaders meet with state lawmakers
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The city of Bell’s top managers met Wednesday with several members of the Legislature and asked for help in expediting a refund of taxes overcharged to city residents. But the city leaders urged caution against rushing forward with other reform bills that might hurt cities.
The meeting with a dozen legislators was held behind closed doors in the Capitol, but it became clear that legislators from Los Angeles County are divided over how best to respond to the growing Bell controversy.
Bell Interim City Manager Pedro Carrillo and Interim City Atty. Jamie Casso met with lawmakers for more than an hour to brief them on their investigation into what they see as excessive salaries and other questionable financial arrangements involving former city officials.
‘The thing we all agree on is the taxpayers who have been over-assessed need their money back ,’’ Carrillo said.
But with 10 days left in the legislative session, some lawmakers are also proposing major changes in the law to restrict how cities compensate their managers and council members, as well as punitive sanctions for those municipalities that approve excessive pay.
Assemblyman Tony Mendoza (D-Artesia), who called Wednesday’s meeting, urged his colleagues not to rush through major changes in policy before the completion of multiple investigations that are underway.
‘Do you really want to do it in 10 days, or do you want to wait until the investigation is over so you can make a more informed decision?’ Mendoza asked.
The meeting was called amid growing controversy after The Times reported that former Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo earned nearly $800,000 a year in salary, while part-time council members were paid $100,000.
In response, at least four pieces of state legislation have been proposed, including a bill by Assemblyman Hector De La Torre (D-South Gate) that would block the ability of cities to issue bonds and spend money on tax-generating redevelopment projects if the state attorney general determined their council members’ salaries to be excessive.
Another bill by De La Torre would ban cities from entering into employment contracts that include automatic extension clauses and automatic pay raises as well as severance pay of more than 12 months.
De La Torre declined an invitation to attend Wednesday’s meeting, questioning why the Bell officials were spending time in Sacramento instead of dealing with the unfolding crisis back in their city.
‘I would hope they would be focused on fixing the mess there instead of spending time in Sacramento,’ De La Torre said. He also was critical of the meeting being held behind closed doors.
‘In light of my concern about transparency, it seems a little peculiar that I would go to a closed-door meeting,’ he said.
The assemblyman objected to a proposal by Bell officials to give Carrillo a $175,000 contract good until July 2011 instead of a month-to-month pact.
‘They need to think long and hard about long-term commitments in light of what has happened there in the past,’ he said.
Carrillo said he has not fully analyzed the pending bills, but he urged lawmakers not to rush ahead with major policy changes affecting cities.
‘There are a lot of things going on right now in the Legislature, in a rush with the last 10 days to get legislation through,’ Carrillo said. ‘Our message to them was to be responsive and responsible.’
On the idea of blocking borrowing and redevelopment powers in cities, Carrillo said, ‘I tell people don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, and let’s make certain we have all our facts in order before we make decisions in haste.’
Mendoza said legislators don’t yet have a full picture of what went wrong in Bell. ‘The situation is bad, and probably more bad information is still going to be coming out,’ he said.
-- Patrick McGreevy