The highly paid members of the Bell City Council were able to exempt themselves from state salary limits by placing a city charter on the ballot in a little-noticed special election that attracted fewer than 400 voters.
Since passage of the measure, salaries for council members — part-time employees — have jumped more than 50%, from $61,992 a year to at least $96,996. The Los Angeles County district attorney has opened an inquiry into whether the salaries are lawful.
A state law enacted in 2005 limits the pay of council members in "general law" cities, a category that includes most cities in Southern California. That law was passed in reaction to the high salaries that leaders in South Gate had bestowed on themselves earlier in the decade.
But the year that law passed, the Bell City Council authorized a special election with only one item on the ballot — a measure calling for Bell to convert to a "charter" city. The move was billed as one that would give the city more local control. The ballot language included no mention of the effect the change would have on council members' salaries.
All five council members signed the ballot statement in favor of Measure A. It also was backed by City Manager Robert Rizzo, according to a council member in office at the time. Rizzo "sold the idea to me," former Councilman Victor Bello said. Council members subsequently signed off on contracts that have boosted Rizzo's pay to $787,637 annually, making him probably the highest paid city manager in the country. No one filed an argument against the measure, according to documents obtained by The Times.
Rizzo has not returned calls to his cellphone or messages.
The salaries paid by Bell have prompted growing scrutiny after The Times last week revealed that top city administrators were receiving high compensation. In addition to Rizzo, the assistant city manager and the police chief both earn far more than their counterparts in most other cities.
The charter measure passed, 336 to 54, with the votes in favor amounting to less than 1% of the city's population of roughly 40,000. The majority of the ballots, 239, were absentee votes. The special election cost Bell $40,000 to $60,000, city officials said.
Some council members insisted that the ballot measure was not motivated by a desire to increase salaries — but did not cite any other ways the charter changed how Bell did business.
"The idea of a charter is it gives a city flexibility, it gives us independence," said then-Mayor and current Councilman George Mirabal. "It enabled us to create our own vision for the future. That was the way I look at it then and now."
David Demerjian, who heads the D.A.'s Public Integrity Division, expressed skepticism of that position. "What explanation is there for why the city becomes a charter city," he asked. "Becoming a charter city certainly would give them the opportunity not to comply with that statute."
Former Councilman Bello said "the way I understood it, we would have better control of governing ourselves. We were told we would make a little more money, but I didn't know we were going to get that much money."
Records show that Bello, who resigned from the council last year, has continued to be paid for sitting on four city boards. According to resolutions the council approved in June 2008, commissioners must be council members.
Assemblyman Hector De La Torre (D-South Gate), who wrote the state law limiting council members' pay, said he did so because of the surreptitious pay raises he had seen in his city.
"Then lo and behold, I find out a couple months later, Bell is doing an end run around it," he said. "The timing of this is clearly suspect." De la Torre's bill was signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzennegger on Sept. 6, 2005, and it became law Jan. 1, 2006.
State law sets the limit on council pay for a city with Bell's population at $400 a month and limits the amount of money council members can receive for sitting on boards and commissions to $150 a month for each board.
Bell's charter says its City Council members are to receive the same salaries as their counterparts in general law cities of the same size. In fact, they receive $150 for serving on the council.
But the City Charter bypasses the limits that state law would impose on pay for boards and commissions. Bell council members receive the bulk of their salaries as payments for sitting on the Planning Commission, the Surplus Property Authority, the Public Finance Authority, and the Solid Waste and Recycling Authority, at least $7,873.25 monthly.
City minutes indicate that those boards do little work. Board meetings in Bell are supposed to take place during council meetings, although their names seldom appear in council minutes.
When the boards held separate meetings, they sometimes lasted a minute. "That's why I wanted to limit stipends," De la Torre said. "That whole point of it was to say you couldn't pay ridiculous sums of money for going in and saying 'aye' and leaving."
De La Torre estimated that if Bell were not a charter city, its council members would be paid $10,000 to $12,000 a year.
In a letter responding to questions from Demerjian, Bell Assistant City Atty. William Priest, of the firm Best, Best and Krieger, said the city was following its charter regarding council pay.
"The charter imposes no such limits with respect to their compensation for their service as members of the City's other commissions and boards," Priest wrote.
The council members said in their argument in favor of Measure A that the state had taken $30 million in tax revenues from Bell over the previous 15 years "and they continue to reduce our ability to provide quality services and programs to the People of Bell.
"We say 'ENOUGH.' "
Times staff writer Ruben Vives contributed to this report.