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Bell needs help, now

After weeks of revelations by Times reporters about the disturbing doings of Bell municipal leaders, it’s gratifying to see county and state officials aggressively seeking moral and monetary payback for the city’s aggrieved residents.

On Tuesday, criminal charges of misappropriating public funds were filed against former City Manager Robert Rizzo as well as the mayor and three council members. Several other former city leaders also were arrested and charged.

The arrests came a week after state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown filed a civil lawsuit against most of the same Bell officials, accusing them of defrauding the public and demanding repayment of some of their salaries and limits on their pensions.

Whether or not the Bell officials are found guilty or liable in the proceedings ahead, there can be no doubt that they engaged in despicable acts, some of which came out in the Times coverage, some of which they have admitted themselves, and some of which were divulged by government investigations.

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Here are some of the things we know: Council members stuffed their pockets with up to $100,000 a year by serving for only a few minutes on boards whose business was appended to City Council meetings. City officials paid themselves outrageous amounts — Rizzo, for instance, earned annual compensation of more than $1.5 million — and gave themselves and their colleagues personal loans. “Corruption on steroids,” is how Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley described the goings-on in Bell at a news conference Tuesday.

Homeowners and businesses in Bell were overcharged on their taxes. The lawsuit reveals that the former assistant city manager wrote a note effectively admitting that the city made it difficult for residents to find out how much their public officials were earning. The council even passed an ordinance described as “limiting” their salaries when in fact it nearly doubled them.

In a previous editorial, we called for city residents to be patient and not demand the immediate resignation of current City Council members, no matter what their transgressions. Doing so, we argued, would put the oversight of Bell into the hands of an interim city manager appointed by the reviled council and with no real accountability to the voters. Better to wait until a new election could be held, with properly vetted candidates.

But the events of the past two weeks call for quicker action. Whatever happens to the council members in court, the high-profile criminal and civil actions against them make it nearly impossible for them to carry on the city’s business. For the next few months, while residents undertake the rebuilding of their municipal government, they deserve to have trusted management in place to oversee city business and restore a measure of calm.

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We are intrigued by the idea put forth by Brown — and backed Tuesday by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors—for a judge to put the city into the hands of an independent receiver. The legalities of such a step are unclear. But school districts have been placed under state management when their financial and academic failings have reached such proportions that they cannot continue to operate under local leadership; Bell’s situation is strikingly similar.

If this does come to pass, it shouldn’t be seen as setting a precedent for the state to infringe on local control whenever it doesn’t like the operations of a particular city. Bell is surrounded by other troubled cities, but its distress, and the lack of trusted leadership, is extreme. Even if the city is put in receivership and an outside manager appointed, it should be for a strictly limited time, perhaps six or eight months, until an election can be held.

Ultimately, it’s the responsibility of local residents to get involved in local politics and monitor what their city officials are doing — and how much they are being paid to do it. But the secretive dealings of Bell’s leaders made it almost impossible for the citizenry to stay informed. That makes it all the more troubling that, of a raft of reform bills introduced in the wake of the Bell scandal, the Legislature failed to pass the most important two, which would have required transparent, easily accessed disclosure of compensation received by public officials. It’s hard for the public to do its job when the leaders don’t do theirs.


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