Stopping short of appointing someone to take financial control of the city of Bell, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge on Wednesday asked city officials and state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown to give him a list of potential monitors who could step in and lead the scandal-battered city.
The request sets the stage for a potential legal fight over control of the city — one that is without clear precedent in the state. Although courts have placed school districts into receivership, experts have said they cannot remember a California city having an overseer imposed upon it.
Judge Robert O'Brien told Bell's attorneys and state prosecutors to each give him a list of three names by Tuesday, but he did not tip his hand as to whether he would take the extreme step of asking a monitor to essentially take over the small city southeast of downtown Los Angeles.
"I don't want to lead anyone to believe we will appoint a monitor," O'Brien said, "but I want to be prepared if we're going to do it."
City officials, who had previously fought the idea of appointing a monitor, said they are now comfortable with the concept as long as the court concedes to some conditions that limit the monitor's access to such things as closed-door council sessions.
"If you don't have them then you're putting the city at risk," said Jamie Casso, the interim city attorney. The city also asked that the state pay for the monitor, a cost that is limited to $85,000. Casso said Bell has already spent an estimated $250,000 complying with subpoenas and public records requests.
The attorney general's office proposed the monitor when it became clear the city's finances were badly strained, saying independent oversight would ensure accountability and transparency
City operations have been disrupted since September when Los Angeles County prosecutors filed criminal charges against Bell officials, including four of the five City Council members. The criminal probe is in addition to six other local, state and federal investigations into the city's financial dealings.
A court-appointed monitor would have access to all city documents and report back to the attorney general and the district attorney, as well as hold a monthly public forum. The monitor would be in place until a month after the March elections, when voters will be asked whether to recall council members and elect replacements.