Bell council members cut salaries 90%; some will forgo pay

City Council members in Bell unanimously agreed Monday to give up their controversial $96,000-a-year salaries and instead draw $673 a month — a 90% decrease.

Council members in the small, working-class city southeast of downtown Los Angeles have been under mounting pressure since the salaries for the part-time jobs were reported in The Times this month.

Mayor Oscar Hernandez and Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo went a step further Monday and said they will finish off their terms without pay.

Hernandez also apologized to residents for the high salaries the city paid to administrators, a reversal from the defiant tone he struck last week.

“Since my first day as mayor, my priority has been to make Bell a city its residents can be proud to call home,” he said. “I apologize that the council’s past decisions with regard to the indefensible administrative salaries have failed to meet that test.” Hernandez said he will not seek another stint as mayor.

A Times report revealed that the city’s top officials received some of the highest municipal wages in the nation. City Administrative Officer Robert Rizzo made $787,637 a year, almost twice the salary of President Obama; Police Chief Randy Adams made $457,000, 50% more than Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck; and Assistant City Manager Spaccia made $376,288, more than the top administrator for Los Angeles County.

All three resigned last week.

In agreeing to sweep back their salaries, Councilmen Luis Artiga and George Mirabal put themselves on par with Lorenzo Velez, who has been paid $673 a month since he was appointed to the council last summer. Velez said he was unaware his colleagues were making so much.

Ali Saleh, a member of the Bell Assn. to Stop The Abuse said Monday that the group welcomes the salary cut. But he added, “It’s not enough. The people don’t trust them anymore. They lost complete trust from the community, and for the better of the community, they should resign.”

The group also demands “a full disclosure of administrative salaries, and any retainers or project contracts provided by outside consultants, followed by a forensic audit by a neutral third party.”

Saleh threatened council members with a recall effort if they did not order a forensic audit of the city’s books and disclose administrative salaries as well as contracts awarded to outside consultants.

Council members drove up their salaries by earning stipends for serving on various boards or commissions, all of which generally met — often very briefly — during council meetings. In their agreement Monday, council members said the $673-a-month salary will reflect their total pay.

Earlier Monday, state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown had subpoenaed hundreds of documents from Bell as part of his office’s investigation into the high salaries.

“How did they come to the conclusion that public officials should make that much money?” Brown said at a news conference at his Los Angeles office.

Among the documents Brown has demanded are e-mails, employment contracts, ordinances and resolutions, some going back to January 2003. Some must be turned in by Wednesday, and others by Aug. 6.

“Hundreds of thousands of public dollars were paid out under suspicious circumstances,” said Brown, the Democratic nominee for governor.

The Los Angeles County district attorney began an inquiry into the council’s salaries several weeks ago. Former Councilman Victor Bello, who resigned in August for undisclosed reasons, said district attorney investigators took documents from his home Monday.

Almost immediately after he left the council, Bello became the only full-time employee at the city food bank, the first person to hold the job, Rizzo said.

Documents show that Bello was being paid $96,000 a year there, roughly the same salary paid to most council members. He has continued to be paid for sitting on four city boards, even though city resolutions say commissioners must be council members.

Bello last week showed The Times the three white boxes he said the district attorney took from him. He said they included council agendas, a list that showed payments the city had made to vendors and contractors, fliers of community events and other documents.

Dave Demerjian, head of the district attorney’s Public Integrity Unit, said he could not comment.

The mayor’s apology was a turnaround from his comments last week when he praised Rizzo, even after the council announced that the city manager, Adams and Spaccia were resigning. Hernandez said Rizzo’s salary was appropriate considering the excellent job he did.

He also sharply criticized The Times’ reporting of the issue.

Over the weekend, Velez called on fellow council members to reduce their salaries to the $8,000 a year he is receiving. Jacobo, the vice mayor, has said Velez was being paid substantially less because he had been appointed to finish Bello’s unexpired term and had not been elected to office.

Velez said if council members refused to cut their salaries, they should resign immediately. He also called for an independent accounting of business dealings council members have had with the city and argued that they should reveal how much they will earn from their city pensions.