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Fixing the broken Bell

In the uncapped gusher of municipal corruption pouring out of the tiny city of Bell, only one thing is surprising: that it’s taken this long to be noticed.

For decades, the municipalities of southeast Los Angeles County have been notorious. Many of them are too small and too poor, cut off from resources in neighboring cities because of archaic boundary decisions made 100 years ago. They were destined, by accidents of history, to be vulnerable targets for opportunists to seize and exploit.

Bell’s neighbor, Vernon, for example, has fewer than 100 residents and just a handful of homes, almost all of them reserved for elected officials and city employees. For decades Vernon was ruled by three generations of its founding family — until the grandson was convicted of voting in Vernon while living in a Hancock Park mansion. He’d been mayor for 33 years. Vernon’s former city manager has been indicted on charges of misappropriating public funds, but he continues to collect the highest public pension in California: $499,000 a year for life.

Or consider another Bell neighbor, South Gate, whose city treasurer was convicted of looting more than $20 million in public funds. Or Maywood, a square-mile city that made national news by firing its entire city workforce and replacing them with employees from Bell — just before the pay scandal in that city came to light.

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So was Bell really a surprise? No, it was hiding in plain sight in a sea of municipal corruption and mismanagement.

Most of the cities in southeast Los Angeles were once reasonably prosperous suburbs. They housed the working-class families employed in the aerospace, auto, rubber and steel plants that dominated the second-largest industrial concentration in the world. But as the giant factories closed, the populations shifted to the burgeoning workforce of Latinos who took lower-paying jobs in the small-time manufacturing and service businesses that make up the underside of the Los Angeles economy.

Combined, these obscure municipalities would be the third-most-populous in the county, behind Los Angeles and Long Beach. Divided, they have proved tempting prizes for crooks to plunder, while the rest of Southern California worried about traffic, smog and taxes.

Their histories are not entirely bleak. Plenty of hardworking and selfless elected officials and city employees have toiled for low pay to deliver public services to a population desperately in need of them. One town, Paramount, even managed to overcome the odds and emerge as a remarkably clean and well-run model community. But in addition to Bell, Maywood and South Gate, the cities of Lynwood, Huntington Park, Compton, Cudahy and Bell Gardens have all suffered from periodic political wars and scandals. Brazen corruption occasionally makes news, yet the towns’ desperate struggles with crime, overcrowding, failing schools and joblessness have failed to register on the Richter scale of public concern. The pirates of Bell will be ousted. But without systematic reform, don’t be surprised when another scandal erupts in the rust belt of Los Angeles County.

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The sensible step to address both the corruption and the desperation in southeast Los Angeles County would be for a judge or the next governor to place all the cities into temporary receivership, in which they would be managed as a single entity. The competent and dedicated core of professional staff in the cities could then be reorganized into a sensible structure to deliver cost-effective local services, without duplication or malfeasance. The huge wealth and commercial tax base of the industrial cities of Vernon and Commerce would fund services in the places where their tens of thousands of workers actually live.

Then an honest election should be held in which the combined citizenry would be given a choice: whether they want to create, say, three cities (the size of Pasadena or Downey) or one combined city (the size of Long Beach). Whatever the decision, the new city or cities could contract out some public services to public and private agencies, just as the nearby stable and prosperous city of Lakewood has done for decades.

Such a solution would not be a panacea. The area would still have an aging industrial base and a lower-income population. But the dysfunctional and easily plundered fiefdoms would be swept away. There would be a substantial population of homeowning, taxpaying voters that neither politicians nor the larger media would be able to ignore.

Can’t happen? Nonsense. When Pat Brown was governor, hundreds of tiny California school districts were consolidated as part of a sweeping reform of public education. That’s why most school districts today have the word “unified” in their names. More recently, successful municipal consolidations have been achieved in Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

The rampant municipal corruption in Bell is not the inevitable byproduct of demographics, nor can it be dismissed as simple human greed. The fault lies not in our stars nor canny crooks but in ourselves. We allow nearly half a million of our fellow citizens to be trapped in corruption-plagued artificial jurisdictions.

It’s in our power to drain the swamp and give residents of southeast L.A. County hope for honest elections, adequate public services and city officials who work for them rather than for themselves. These are civic rights the rest of us take for granted. It’s time they were ensured to communities like Bell.

Rick Cole, a former mayor of Pasadena, is the city manager of Ventura. He won the 2009 Excellence in Government Award from the Municipal Management Assn. of Southern California.


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