Bell council defiantly defends outgoing officials' high salaries

The Bell City Council accepted resignations Friday from three top city administrators whose high salaries have prompted public outcry — only to offer a defiant defense of the compensation hours later.

City council members emerged from a seven-hour closed-door meeting early Friday morning to announce that City Manager Robert Rizzo, Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia and Police Chief Randy Adams were leaving their jobs.

Officials said the three were not receiving severance packages, but declined to provide any details about the departures or what had been decided behind closed doors. It's unclear whether all the agreements have been finalized. Once they are, one public records expert said, there's no legal reason they should not be made public.

Sources at Bell City Hall said officials, including City Council members, are prohibited under the resignation agreements from discussing the settlement terms publicly.

The Times revealed last week that Rizzo was earning a $787,637 annual salary, Adams $457,000 and Spaccia $376,288. Experts said Rizzo appeared to be the highest-paid city manager in the nation. He had nearly three years left on his contract, and it's unclear whether the city bought it out or whether he agreed to walk away without compensation.

Bell issued its first public statement on the salary controversy Friday, with Mayor Oscar Hernandez calling Rizzo's salary well within reason for the excellent job he did for the city of 40,000.

"Unlike the skewed view of the facts the Los Angeles Times presented to advance the paper's own agenda, a look at the big picture of city compensation shows that salaries of the city manager and other top city staff have been in line with similar positions over the period of their tenure," Hernandez said in a letter to the public.

The League of California Cities, however, released a statement highly critical of Bell and its officials, saying the group was working on possible legislation to prevent a repeat of the Bell salary situation. "We are unaware of any city in the nation where salaries of this level are paid for comparable positions," the league said.

In an interview, Executive Director Chris McKenzie said this was the first time he was aware of that the league had issued such a statement. "That shows how absolutely concerned we are over these practices," he said, referring the salaries paid to Rizzo and his colleagues. "City officials across the state are up in arms over this."

Robin Lowe, president of the league and a Hemet councilwoman, said she found Hernandez's defense of Rizzo's salary "nauseating."

"I have no explanation for the city of Bell right now," Lowe said. "The reaction I've had from elected officials in our organization and across the country has been one of disgust."

In addition to the high salaries for city administrators, four of the five Bell council members are paid close to $100,000 annually — sums significantly higher than the salaries earned at other cities Bell's size.

The League of California Cities and other local government organizations have been battling efforts in the Legislature to reduce state aid to cities and counties, a cause not helped by news of outsize salaries.

Under the settlements worked out by Bell officials and their lawyers, Rizzo will step down at the end of August and Spaccia will leave at the end of September. Adams will also leave at the end of August, after completing an evaluation of the Police Department.

The decision was announced at midnight to a crowd of angry Bell residents who had been waiting anxiously since the City Council began its meeting at 4:30 Thursday afternoon. None of the administrators attended the session.

The crowd erupted in applause after the announcement but immediately yelled out questions about what would happen to the council members' salaries. When their questions were not answered, they shouted, "Recall!"

"Definitely letting go of these three top officials is the first step we need to fix the city," said Cristina Garcia, a member of the Bell Assn. to Stop the Abuse, or BASTA. The group has called for four of the council members to resign or agree to slash their salaries. The fifth council member makes about $8,000, nearly 90% less than his colleagues.

Throughout the evening, several residents complained that the council was taking too long, while others clapped in unison to urge the members to come out from behind closed doors.

"This is outrageous," said Marcelino Ceja, who has lived in the city for 17 years. "They have to hurry up. I've got kids to feed."

Emotions ran so high that the council chamber was briefly cleared. Several residents taunted council members, including yelling, "Rude, rude," when Mayor Hernandez's cellphone rang. Several urged the entire council to resign.

In his letter, released after the meeting ended, Hernandez did not address why the council accept Rizzo's resignation. But he did address the public anger: "We recognize that today's economic climate and the financial hardships so many families are suffering put our past compensation decisions in a new light. To the residents of Bell, we apologize."

But he steadfastly defended Rizzo.

"A full, fair reporting of the facts would also have demonstrated that Rizzo delivered Bell from a $20-million shortfall to 15 years of balanced budgets. In addition, the city transformed from one of struggling to maintain its day-to-day operations to a city that is a model for financial prudence and effective service delivery," Hernandez wrote.

"Rizzo leaves Bell in a far better position than he found it 17 years ago."

It remains unclear how much the public will ultimately learn about the departures of Rizzo and the two others.

The two sources, who spoke to The Times on the condition that they not be named, said the separation agreements with the officials included a clause preventing all parties from talking about the departures or discussing details of the agreement.

Rizzo had a three-year contract with the city that was automatically renewed every year. After stepping down, he would be eligible for a pension of more than $600,000, according to a Times estimate that was reviewed by state pension officials.

Documents obtained by The Times show that Rizzo had a similar agreement when he stepped down as city manager of the San Bernardino County community of Hesperia in the early 1990s. Rizzo arrived in Bell after serving as the first city manager in Hesperia.

He was earning $95,000 when he left the High Desert city. By 1992, he had become a controversial figure there, with press accounts at the time saying some council members wanted to replace him.

In the end, Rizzo agreed to step down with an agreement that the city would pay him more than $108,000 over nine months for consulting services after his departure. Hesperia city officials also agreed not to speak about Rizzo's tenure or reveal details about his resignation. The document was prepared by the city attorney's office and signed by the mayor.

It's unclear whether Rizzo's record in Hesperia was known by Bell officials who hired him in 1993.

At least one open-government expert said that although such "non-disparagement clauses" are common, they should not prevent the city from providing financial or other details about the resignations, which should be a public record.

"In many cases there is at least a mutual interest to have things just shut down with no further comment or disclosure. In many cases, neither side's hands are completely clean," said Terry Francke, general counsel of the nonprofit Californians Aware and an open-government advocate. "That's the cost of these kinds of reciprocal agreements: While it may give legitimate privacy protections to the outgoing employee, it also buys their silence about things the public might need to know about."

Times staff writer Victoria Kim contributed to this report.

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