Downey drops city attorney who also worked for Bell

The attorney who was Bell’s legal counsel when city leaders agreed to pay lavish salaries to top administrators has been let go by neighboring Downey, where city leaders said they no longer felt comfortable being associated with him.

Edward Lee, a partner with the firm Best, Best & Krieger, also has been the city attorney for Maywood and Covina.

But the Downey City Council voted 3 to 2 on Thursday to terminate the firm’s contract. Officials said they had become disenchanted with Lee’s involvement in the Bell salary controversy, which Councilman Mario Guerra called one of the “most egregious breaches of fiduciary responsibilities in the history of our state.”

Guerra cautioned that he found no fault with Lee’s legal advice but felt that it was an “embarrassment” to be associated with the Bellsalary scandal.

“We are a great, conservative and ethical city and any association with them and us is wrong and I resent it,” said Guerra, who added that he became distressed when he saw Lee on the evening news recently trying to calm an angry crowd at a Bell City Council meeting.

As Bell’s city attorney, a position he has held since the 1990s, Lee signed off on contracts that paid top administrators some of the highest salaries for their positions in the nation. City Manager Robert Rizzo was paid nearly $800,000 a year, Police Chief Randy Adams $457,000 and Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia $376,288.

All three resigned last week as anger in the small, working-class city has grown.

The high salaries are part of the focus of a sweeping investigation by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office. The state attorney general’s office has also opened an investigation.

Downey officials said Lee had been the city’s attorney since 2007 and last year his firm was paid about $500,000. In Covina, officials said Lee’s firm was paid about $477,000 last year. Bell’s budget shows $243,000 was spent for “city attorney” in the last fiscal year. No figures were available for Maywood.

As city attorney, Lee’s job is not to set policy but to ensure that council members and city officials do not break laws while drafting and implementing their own legislation.

Still, some angry Bell residents say they believe that Lee should have spoken up as salaries soared.

“Ultimately, I think he bears some responsibility in all this,” said Cristina Garcia, who helped found the Bell Assn. to Stop the Abuse, an activist group

UC Davis law professor Rex R. Perschbacher, who wrote a book on California legal ethics, said the question of what Lee and any city attorney should have done is complicated.

“The city attorney’s responsibilities are to the people of the city, as represented by the City Council,” he said. “There is always a conflict. Am I doing the right thing by the people, or am I doing what the City Council wants.... It puts the city attorney in a real tough bind.”

Perschbacher said that although city attorneys have a responsibility to the public to see that city funds are not misspent, in the end their only choice is to resign if the council will not listen to them.

The Bell salary scandal continues to boil and residents are proceeding with plans to recall the council members who were making nearly $100,000 for their part-time work. The council decided to slash its salaries by 90% this week.

In Sacramento, nearly three dozen city administrators from throughout California met Thursday in response to the outcry over the Bell salaries and promised statewide reforms, including guidelines for setting pay for managers and requirements that compensation figures be easily accessible to the public.

“There really has been a violation of the public trust,” said Ken Pulskamp, Santa Clarita’s city manager and president of the administrators group for the League of California Cities. “Something broke down in terms of transparency, in terms of knowledge of the community.”

The mood was somber among the managers, several of whom said they were concerned that the salary scandal in Bell would tarnish the image of administrators in other cities. Some managers voiced concern that the Legislature might go too far in regulating an issue that should be under local control, and asked that any guidelines not unreasonably tie the hands of city councils negotiating to get top talent for management jobs.

Times staff writers Patrick McGreevy, Jeff Gottlieb and Ruben Vives contributed to this report.