Bell council discusses reforms as residents continue angry protests


Confronting a hostile crowd, the Bell City Council met Monday night on whether to roll back property taxes, turn over administration of city elections to Los Angeles County and cut the cost of obtaining public records — the latest potential concessions by leaders of the small, working-class town in the wake of a salary scandal.

The proposed reforms come as local and state authorities open investigations into City Hall finances, the high salaries of top administrators and possible election fraud.

Several hundred people descended on City Hall for the meeting, which continued late Monday night, inside the small chambers that seats only 96. Angered by repeated disclosures of fiscal irresponsibility, residents were demanding a wholesale change in city leadership, with the exception of Councilman Lorenzo Velez, an early proponent of reforms who was not drawing the high salaries of his council colleagues.

One man, decked out in a colorful clown costume, referred to the group as the “City Clowncil.”

“If you have any dignity,” resident Violeta Alvarez told council members during the public comment period, “you need to resign.”

Earlier this month, state Controller John Chiang said the city illegally raised its property taxes in 2007 and must return $2.9 million it has collected since then. Chiang also ordered Bell to immediately reduce the city’s “retirement tax,” which the council increased to cover rising pension costs for its employees.

The proposed reduction would apply to the round of taxes due in November. The owner of a home in Bell with an assessed value of $400,000 would save about $360 a year because of the rollback.

The Times reported that while top city officials were earning some of the highest salaries in the nation for their jobs, residents were paying higher taxes than all but one city in Los Angeles County.

The salaries and Bell’s hefty property taxes contrast sharply with residents’ financial standing. Median household income in Bell, southeast of downtown Los Angeles, is $40,556 — well below the countywide average of $57,152.

Former City Manager Robert Rizzo, who resigned last month along with the police chief and the assistant city manager, was earning nearly $800,000 a year and stands to make about $600,000 annually in retirement. Five city employees had salaries higher than $350,000.

Even with the reduced retirement tax, Bell’s overall tax rate will remain higher than many cities in the county, in part because of a 0.09% assessment that kicked in this year to cover debt from a bond issued to pay for various civic improvements, including a sports complex.

After Los Angeles County prosecutors opened an investigation into potential voter fraud, several Bell residents told The Times that city officials pressed them to fill out absentee ballots in a way that election experts say may have violated state law.

The potential for fraud in Bell is heightened because of of low voter participation in the largely immigrant town of 40,000. Fewer than 400 voters cast ballots in a 2005 special election that cleared the way for council members to significantly increase their salaries, for example. More than half were absentee ballots.

Four of the five council members were earning about $100,000 for their part-time jobs. Last month, the council slashed those salaries by 90%.

An hour before Monday’s meeting began, hundreds of community members swarmed the grounds of City Hall with signs that read, “We don’t want you!” and “Rizzo’s Puppets.”

The rally, organized by the Bell Assn. to Stop the Abuse, drew an excited crowd that included young children and elderly men and women.

Into one loudspeaker held high, residents took turns shouting their demands for the council members to resign.

“Fuera, fuera, fuera!” — Out, out, out! — the crowd chanted in reply.

Nora Saenz, 31, passed out fliers protesting a proposed contract that would pay Interim City Manager Pedro Carrillo $175,000 until July 2011.

“He had a lot of involvement with everything that happened with Rizzo,” she said. “We’re going to be back where we were if we bring this guy in.”

Saenz, who works in accounting, said she had never before been involved in civic affairs but hopes to set an example for her 9-year-old daughter by taking action now.

“Had the community been a little more involved, all of this could’ve been prevented,” she said. “But now we’re vigilant, we’re fighting, and we want to clean up our city.”

Times staff writers Corina Knoll and Robert J. Lopez contributed to this report.