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It’s a message as clear as Bell

We’re living through the Summer of Bell. The Tony Soprano-sized venality of officials in the small L.A. County city is so brazen that it’s got Americans buzzing and journalists asking how much officials in other cities get paid.

From South Bend, Ind., to Rancho Cucamonga, public records requests have been made. Stories have been published. And citizens know a bit more about who’s getting what for keeping the buses, police and basketball rec leagues running on time.

But the story that seems to confirm the power of public records and accountability turns out to be something of an exception. We still have a sheriff in L.A. County who’s hiding away records on a notorious 40-year-old killing. We’ve got a Los Angeles Superior Court judge who thinks she should stop publication of photographs just because she can imagine some possible, potential, theoretical harm. And we’ve got a White House, according to one watchdog group, that has lost its focus on “critical transparency policies.”

That all runs at cross-purposes with the action and the attitude on Main Street, where recession-whipped Americans are mad as hell and want to know more about what their government is doing. Scores of reporters have responded by checking to make sure the locals aren’t making out like former Bell city administrator Robert Rizzo, who resigned with a pay and benefits package totaling $1.5 million a year.

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Most of the Bell follow-ups by the media have found city officials paid about what you would expect. A few have revealed (gasp!) bureaucrats who have forgone raises, and even taken pay cuts, as a result of the current recession. It would be nice if we could blame all our ills on the bad guys at City Hall. But most of these folks go about their work honestly.

Kristina Hacker, editor of the Turlock Journal in the Central Valley, said she has been impressed that Police Chief Gary Hampton, at $191,700 a year, didn’t take any extra pay when he filled in as interim city manager earlier this year. Now he’s serving as Turlock’s interim fire chief, also without extra pay. Hampton has said he didn’t think it was right to take more money while others were being laid off.

“He has the most respect of any leader we have had in this town for years,” Hacker told me.

But finding one nicely polished apple doesn’t mean that the editor or her handful of reporters are ready to give the rest of the barrel a clean bill of health. Hacker said she still finds too many public officials ready to hold meetings at odd hours and to skirt transparency rules in other ways.

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“It’s not that they all want to fleece the county,” Hacker said. “They are just not educated enough about the [Public Records Act]. Or they want to do it the easy way. Or they have just gotten used to the public or reporters not showing up.”

Hacker’s experience exemplifies what government officials never seem to learn: Their ducking and dodging of records requests provokes more suspicion than most of what the media went looking for in the first place.

Witness Sheriff Lee Baca and the case of Ruben Salazar. The newsman died 40 years ago this month when struck in the head by a tear-gas missile fired by a sheriff’s deputy into Silver Dollar bar in East Los Angeles.

The FBI and Los Angeles Police Department have previously released records to The Times about the episode, which occurred during a 1970 antiwar protest. But Baca suggested it would set a bad legal precedent to release his own department’s files about the death of the Times columnist, who was also news director for KMEX-TV.

It’s hard to imagine what legal principles or individual rights need protecting in a killing that’s now four decades old. The sheriff’s spokesman, Steve Whitmore, initially suggested that the budget-strapped department simply can’t devote the time to reviewing the file.

The state’s Public Records Act simply doesn’t tolerate answers like “We’re too busy” or “We have more important things to do.” After the initial carping and a little push from the Board of Supervisors, Baca said Tuesday he would take a closer look before making a decision.

It comes as no surprise that the sheriff’s compass on media matters sometimes loses true north. Baca last year thought it was a good idea for his department to go snooping in Harvey Levin’s phone records to try to find out who leaked details of an anti-Semitic rant by Mel Gibson to the tabloid journalist. It takes real sleight of hand to protect Mad Mel and, in the process, make the creator of the creepy TMZ franchise look like an ethics champion. But Baca somehow managed it.

Judge Hilleri G. Merritt joins Baca as a member in good standing of the “My Way” coven.

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Higher courts previously have imagined almost no circumstance in which a judge can constitutionally prohibit words or images from being published. But Merritt thought she had reason enough in the case of a Times photographer who took pictures of an accused killer in her courtroom.

After signing an order allowing photographer Al Seib to shoot pictures of defendant Alberd Tersargyan, accused of murdering four people in a series of incidents, Merritt minutes later reversed herself and ordered the photographer and the Los Angeles Times not to publish the photographs. Even though other pictures of the defendant had already been circulated in the media for months, Merritt found persuasive the public defender’s suggestion that Seib’s pictures of the defendant in his jail garb might prejudice potential witnesses.

On Monday the California Court of Appeal ordered Judge Merritt to vacate her order restraining The Times from publishing the photos or explain why the higher court should not order her to do so. But the judge on Tuesday let her prior restraint stand, pending more arguments before the appellate court.

In other words, with a reversal all but certain, the judge would just as soon leave her mistaken ruling in place until she is forced to change it.

Meanwhile, on the banks of the Potomac, President Obama has been viewed by public records advocates as being an improvement over his predecessor, while not yet worthy of his lofty promises about clearing the public’s path to the federal government. The Columbia Journalism Review this year found Obama’s invocation of the “state secrets” exemption on national security records not hugely different from President George W. Bush’s. The magazine, on the other hand, credited the Obama White House with better progress on streamlining the response to Freedom of Information Act requests.

Still, the Sunlight Foundation on Tuesday expressed concern that reforms have stalled — with little progress on putting public documents online and no push by the administration to create a clearer public record when members of Congress seek earmarks for their states and districts.

The Summer of Bell may become a long season of public disclosure. But not without constant vigilance and a lot more work by the people and the press.

james.rainey@latimes.com

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Twitter: latimesrainey


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