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Attorney general pushes for court-appointed monitor in Bell

Lorenzo Velez stepped onto the Bell City Council dais Monday night and took his seat as the crowd cheered and applauded the only council member not charged with a crime — and the only one who showed up for the council meeting.

Councilman Luis Artiga had resigned earlier in the day. Councilman George Mirabal remains in jail. And Mayor Oscar Hernandez and Councilwoman Teresa Jacobo — both charged with felonies in the public corruption case that has enveloped the city — didn’t attend the meeting, saying they were ill.

That left Velez, the only council member who never received the inflated salaries paid to other top Bell officials and the only one untainted by the city’s scandals. But while the image of the lone, honest sheriff plays well in movies of the Old West, a single working councilman in a scandal-rocked city can’t do much. And for now, experts say, neither can Bell.

The small, working-class city of roughly 40,000 southeast of downtown Los Angeles has been in governmental chaos ever since July, when The Times disclosed that its city administrator, Robert Rizzo, and other top officials were being paid salaries higher than any other municipal officials in the state. But in recent days, with Rizzo in jail, the municipal credit rating sinking and the City Council unable to meet for lack of a quorum, Bell’s problems have deepened.

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In a letter obtained Tuesday by The Times, Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown asked the city to agree to a court-appointed monitor who would have “complete and unfettered access to all matters relating to the City.”

The proposed monitor would have authority to investigate “fraud, dishonesty, incompetence, misconduct, mismanagement, or any irregularity” in city government and would be able to interview any city official or employee, according to the letter, which Brown e-mailed to city officials Sept. 30. If the city agrees to the monitor, the letter implied, the attorney general’s office would drop its proposal to turn city government over to an appointed receiver.

A monitor could be installed more quickly than a receiver, “and the need to protect the people in Bell was paramount,” said Brown’s spokesman, Jim Finefrock. The attorney general’s office has given the city until Friday to agree to the monitor or else it will continue its push for a receiver.

Pedro Carrillo, Bell’s interim chief administrative officer, said he flew to Sacramento recently and met for several hours with officials from the attorney general’s office. “We will work diligently with all agencies to fix the errors and mistakes of the previous administration,” he said.

But the monitor would not have the authority to run city agencies or set policy. For that, a working City Council is required. And to achieve that goal, legal experts say, Bell has limited options — all of them problematic.

“Running a city without a City Council is virtually impossible,” said Ventura City Manager Rick Cole, a longtime writer on Southern California cities.

Legally, Carrillo, as city administrator, can pay city bills up to $50,000, according to an audit by state Controller John Chiang that was released last month. Amounts greater than $50,000 have to be approved by the council. Also, amendments or approval of resolutions, ordinances and changes to city policies would be put on hold until a quorum is available.

Many Bell residents have called on the remaining three City Council members facing criminal charges — Mirabal, Hernandez and Jacobo — to follow Artiga’s lead and resign. But if that happens, three months probably would be required until a special election could be held to replace them.

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Likewise, the effort to recall most council members also could force an election, but again, months off.

“I tell people, when asking for resignations be careful what you wish for because there are no good options,” said Assemblyman Hector De La Torre (D-South Gate), who represents Bell. “In the meantime, the city is almost paralyzed like we saw last night.”

The alternatives to waiting for a new election are largely untested and some may not be legal. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors recently backed the idea of a receiver, who would oversee the city’s affairs, possibly with the power to veto the City Council or make decisions in its place if there is no quorum.

Velez said he is opposed to receivership, but would go along with it if that’s what citizens demand.

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“What people don’t understand is that they think we’re still going to participate in the handling of the day-to-day business,” Velez said. “That’s not so. The receiver is going to take over all of the administrative operations and I fear that the city will lose its identity.”

But Patrick Whitnell, general counsel for the League of California Cities, said he has never heard of a city going into receivership, nor could he find any laws that would allow such a step.

The desert mobile home shantytown of Duroville, located on an Indian reservation in Riverside County, was placed into receivership, but Duroville was not an incorporated city with elected council members. Still, Mark Adams, who was the receiver for the shantytown, said the case in Bell seems extreme.

“The photo of the empty council seats in the L.A. Times said it all,” Adams said. “In the law of equity, there is a strong principle of necessity. If no one can protect the people, then a court can step in and protect the rights of people being affected. Bell is almost a failed state at this point.”

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Another option would be for the current council, including those charged in the corruption case, to appoint replacements. That could be done quickly, said Gary Milliman, a former city manager in nearby South Gate.

But letting a group of tainted politicians pick their replacements would be a tough sell in a city that has become increasingly militant in its effort to drive out its old leaders. Additionally, a city can’t have a majority of its council members be appointees, said Michael Colantuono, a veteran government agency attorney.

The accused council members could attempt to serve out their terms, which expire in March. But at this point, the angry crowds that have become a fixture at meetings could make it difficult for business as usual to resume at council meetings.

Stanley L. Friedman, Hernandez’s attorney, said he “does plan on maintaining his office and attending future council sessions.” But Friedman said Hernandez fears for his safety if he shows up to the large public meetings.

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Friedman said the mayor has requested that City Council meetings be held in the council chambers, which seat only 96, rather than the city’s community center where council meetings have been held to accommodate large crowds.

As long as the accused council members remain in office but don’t show up, Carrillo — the interim chief administrative officer — can’t make decisions on major issues, De La Torre said.

But if they resign and the City Council has no quorum for meetings, Carrillo could be empowered to make such decisions. Carrillo himself, however, has become a polarizing figure for many Bell residents, who in rambunctious meetings take turns calling him names and pointing fingers at him.

“It’s like the 12 stages of grief,” De La Torre said. “We’re stuck on anger. And that’s not going to do it here. We need to move on to the other stages.”

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hector.becerra@latimes.com

jeff.gottlieb@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com

Times staff writers Sam Allen and Ruben Vives contributed to this report.


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