Embattled Bell council members face a jeering crowd at meeting

For the first time since most of them were taken away in handcuffs and jailed in a sweeping public corruption case, some embattled members of the Bell City Council met Monday evening in front of angry, jeering citizens.

Mayor Oscar Hernandez was escorted into the meeting by police, who said he fears for his safety.

Hundreds of residents jammed into the council chambers or stood outside. The crowds have become a regular occurrence since The Times revealed the oversized salaries of council members and other city officials. Eight current or former city leaders have been charged with misappropriating more than $5.5 million.

"We're here ready to serve the community," Hernandez said when the meeting was convened, 35 minutes late.

The crowd laughed, the sarcasm evident.

"Teresa, did you like the food" in jail? Coco Ceja, a longtime resident, called out to Councilwoman Teresa Jacobo. "You looked good in orange.

"And Hernandez? Are you ready to go back?" Ceja prodded the mayor.

The mayor stared at Ceja and answered sarcastically: "Yeah, I'm ready."

Monday's agenda offered little but glum business for council members, who were asked to clear the way for their own recall by approving petition signatures verified by the county registrar of voters and to set a special election to replace a colleague who resigned after being jailed.

The council had trouble getting to the agenda, however. Twice during the public comment portion of the meeting, Hernandez had to call a recess to give the crowd a chance to calm down as residents began yelling at one another.

Finally, late in the evening, the council told police to clear the room because the crowd had become too rowdy.

Last month's meeting was abruptly canceled after one council member resigned, another failed to make bail and two called in sick, raising questions about how Bell would continue to function as it was battered by a corruption case.

Only Lorenzo Velez, the lone councilman not charged with a felony, attended the meetings, electing to listen to angry residents who took turns venting.

Since four council members were arrested in September and charged with misappropriating money from the city treasury, Bell's leaders have kept a low profile, making no public appearances.

But on Monday, minus Councilmen Luis Artiga, who resigned last month, and George Mirabal, who was released from jail on bond Friday, the council tended to business.

When the council finally was able to get to the agenda, the members present unanimously agreed to accept the recall petition signatures and to hold a recall election in conjunction with the regular election on March 8, 2011. At that time, voters will be asked if Hernandez and Council members Artiga, Jacobo and Mirabal should be removed from office. Artiga would be on the recall ballot, even though he resigned.

Bell's city charter states that the council can fill a vacancy with an appointed successor or through a special election.

After The Times reported Bell city officials' unusually high salaries in July, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office conducted an investigation that led to the arrest of city officials, including the four council members. All have since posted bail.

Three of the four arrested council members are also included in a suit filed by state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown that alleges they, along with former City Administrator Robert Rizzo and former Police Chief Randy Adams, schemed to enrich themselves by inflating their salaries and pensions, and attempted to conceal their compensation. The suit asks for hundreds of thousands in refunds from the city leaders.

Brown has asked the courts to appoint a monitor to watch over Bell, which is in precarious financial shape.

Recently, the state Department of Corporations launched an investigation into the way Bell handled bond issues over the last decade, marking the sixth outside probe into the city's finances. The U.S. attorney's office is investigating possible civil rights violations and the state controller's office is examining the city's lack of fiscal oversight.

In an attempt to address the city's fiscal woes, city staff proposed that the council terminate post-employment benefit plans, including deferred compensation and supplemental retirement programs. These benefits have not been in effect since Aug. 1. CalPERS retirement benefits would not be affected.

Also on the agenda was a proposal to enter non-exclusive towing agreements with several companies. The city has had an exclusive towing and storage agreement with Bell Tow Inc. since 1999.

In mid-September, shortly after the U.S. Justice Department launched an investigation into civil rights violations focusing on improper towing fees, Bell Tow terminated its agreement with the city and said it is going out of business.



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