On the Media: How many more Bells are out there?

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Several hundred citizens of Bell pressed toward the front door of City Hall this week, shouting and chanting with an indignation that did the heart good.

Bellians have turned into hellions. And for good reason. A story last week in The Times revealed leaders of the working-class city get paid like a bunch of white-shoe lawyers: City Manager Robert Rizzo makes more than $787,000 a year, Police Chief Randy Adams $457,000 and most of the City Council close to $100,000 each.

When they weren’t hollering for the ouster of their small-town satraps Monday night, many in the crowd told me how much they appreciated the work of my colleagues Jeff Gottlieb and Ruben Vives, who broke the news of the shameless taxpayer rip-off.

Bell scandal coverage: The On the Media column in Wednesday’s Calendar section about media coverage of the pay scandal in the city of Bell referred to Spanish-language newspapers published by Eastern Group Publications. The papers are published in both English and Spanish. —

Few causes are more righteous than the outing of officials who convince themselves they are worth more than an honest wage. So the revelations out of the scrappy little city deep in the gut of L.A. County served as both affirmation and alarm of what journalism can do and how much more needs to be done.

With newspapers shrinking and new media alternatives slow to step into the void, one has to wonder how many other City Halls conceal Bell-sized sleaze. How many other city officials have scrimped on services to fatten their paychecks? How many have cut lucrative contracts to benefit friends and relatives? Which developers got sweetheart deals for campaign cash?

It would be nice to point to a Golden Age, when so many reporters patrolled city halls and government agencies that the bureaucrats had no choice but to keep to the straight and narrow. But the truth is that even when newspapers reached their maximum power and economic success, two or three decades ago, they still didn’t employ enough reporters to cover all the beats that needed tending.

As circulations have declined and newspapers have been flummoxed in their hunt for ways to make their popular Internet editions pay for themselves, the reporting ranks in Los Angeles County have thinned to half what they were 15 years ago.

The result is that officials in places like Bell can blithely go about their business — racking up 12% annual pay raises, keeping a pal on the payroll in a make-work job — without anyone in the news business sniffing around for months, or even years, on end.

Times Metro Editor David Lauter tells me that Vives and Gottlieb will stay on Bell’s case. Two other veteran investigative reporters are “looking at whether the kind of problems we saw cropping up in Bell have been replicated elsewhere” in the poor cities of Southeast Los Angeles County, Lauter said.

The Times took a similar approach in years past — rooting out scandalous behavior in places like South Gate, Lynwood and Compton.

But Lauter doesn’t deny what’s become obvious — that The Times doesn’t have enough reporters to regularly cover the county’s 88 cities, not to mention myriad other agencies and beats (like transportation, education and healthcare) that loom large in the lives of our readers.

Staff cutbacks have been even deeper at the small- and medium-sized papers — like the South Bay Daily Breeze and Pasadena Star-News — that used to cover many suburban communities. And the smallest community papers — like those in the Wave chain, which covers many of the working-class communities in L.A. County — have only skeletal staffs.

Arnold Adler covers about a dozen cities, including Bell, for the Wave chain, but his work consists mostly of rewriting press releases and scrambling after quick accounts of city council votes.

He has overseen coverage of Bell city government since 1993, but has not yet attended a City Council meeting. He noted that his paper’s readership is substantially greater in neighboring cities like South Gate.

I figured Adler, 73, might be rushing out to Monday night’s meeting but he told me he wasn’t sure it was more important than the other small cities holding meetings that night.

I asked if he was curious whether other officials in some of those other cities might be paying themselves huge salaries. “Not really,” the soft-spoken Adler replied. “Technically, the salary should be based on state law and that is based on the population of the community.”

It would be wrong, though, to lay diminished coverage in the lap of any single publication. The Long Beach Press-Telegram never ventured far enough north from its harbor roost to get wind of Bell’s problems. And the Spanish-language papers owned by Eastern Group Publications tend to other communities around Bell, but not Bell itself.

“There is something wrong in this city,” said Leo Bueno, a hospital maintenance man who joined the rally outside City Hall. “But nobody can find out anything about what is going on. There is nowhere to go.”

Back in the days of more robust staffing at local newspapers, Bell officials might have gotten away with a few years of unchecked pay raises. But I’m guessing The Times or a smaller competitor would have sniffed out Rizzo’s ill-gotten gains years ago, perhaps when his salary was a mere $400,000.

Several of the residents pleaded for The Times to stay on the story. But a big downtown paper spread over hundreds of Southern California communities can only dip in occasionally on any single small-town government.

It will take a more persistent journalistic voice, closer to home, to keep municipal malefactors on the run. Bell reformers have recently created a Facebook page. They have a new political organization. But it’s unclear whether they can find and support a new journalistic voice to patrol their city’s cozy corridors of power.

The Times reporters had been probing finances in Bell and neighboring Maywood when they discovered the district attorney’s office had launched an investigation into excessive pay. That led to public records requests, which smoked out the whopping salaries.

A few Bellians told Gottlieb they had demanded public records before. But they said city officials put them off.

A big newspaper like The Times can’t be so easily dissuaded. As they waited for the records, the reporters frequently reminded city officials they didn’t want to have to take them to court.

If they’re lucky, that’s the only kind of judicial action Bell’s bosses will be facing.

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