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The lessons of Bell

Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo has announced his resignation from his $787,637 a year job, as have police Chief Randy Adams ($457,000) and Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia ($376,288), and we wish all three a not-so-fond farewell. Even if they performed their work brilliantly, and even if they believed in their hearts that no one earning less could properly serve their problem-wracked city, their pay was shocking, and so utterly out of step with their counterparts in neighboring municipalities and their own struggling residents as to be inherently exploitive.

The public became aware of the disproportionate salaries earlier this month in reports by Times staff writers Jeff Gottlieb and Ruben Vives. Now Bell residents are angry and want to know why most members of their part-time City Council, which approved the contracts for the three, get an outrageous $100,000 a year when nearby council members get 10% of that, or even less. Prosecutors already are delving into that question, and they will determine whether there is sufficient evidence to pursue criminal charges.

It would be comforting to be able to conclude that the problems in Bell — or in nearby cities such as Maywood, South Gate, Lynwood, Vernon and Compton, which have all been plagued by exploitation, mismanagement and corruption — originated with a handful of municipal officials who forgot their moral and fiduciary duties to the people they were supposed to serve. Or, perhaps, that the people of those cities brought these problems on themselves by electing such leaders, or by staying away from the polls and allowing themselves to be suckered.

Although there’s certainly some truth to both of those explanations, the full reality is far more complex and troubling. Bell and its neighboring communities were built on factory industries and on waves of immigrants from the American Midwest who built their cities’ civic institutions. They stayed, and many of their children stayed, but their grandchildren left when the factories closed. Their places are being taken by new waves of immigrants, mostly from Mexico, who are still in the process of rebuilding community and civic institutions — but without the wealth that industry once pumped into middle-class pockets and city treasuries. Unlike the earlier waves of immigrants, many of the newest generation lack U.S. citizenship and can’t vote. Those who came here illegally live and work in fear of the law and tend to keep their heads low rather than fight exploitation at the hands of those who win power.

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But it’s not even that simple. In 2005, soon after the governor signed a bill to cap salaries of city council members in general law cities such as Bell, public officials there called a special election to ask voters to make Bell a charter city. Only 336 voters said “yes,” but it was enough. Ballot measures, drafted for purposes not immediately clear in their wording, are unfortunately not phenomena limited to small cities. That’s a lesson, in this election year, for every California voter.


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