Residents irate as Bell council requests report on salaries


A Bell councilman said Monday that he didn’t know his salary was $90,000 a year less than his colleagues’ nor that some city administrators made far more than that, until The Times reported that the district attorney’s office was investigating why the pay was so high for the part-time positions.

Councilman Lorenzo Velez said he is being paid $8,076 a year, while his colleagues are drawing nearly $100,000 annually.

Ahead of Monday night’s council meeting, Velez called for an investigation, saying that if The Times’ report is true, the city manager, assistant city manager, police chief and entire council should resign.

FULL COVERAGE: High salaries stir outrage in Bell

The Times reported that Bell’s Chief Administrative Officer Robert Rizzo was earning $787,637 annually, twice as much as President Obama; Police Chief Randy Adams was earning $457,000 a year, 50% more than Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck; and Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia was earning $376,288, more than most city managers.

Hundreds of angry residents attended Monday night’s council meeting, expecting that officials would take action against Rizzo. Earlier in the day, Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo said she expected Rizzo to resign or be fired at the meeting.

Instead the council, citing legal concerns, ordered a staff report on city salaries, sparking outrage from spectators.

“We’re asking for your patience,” Velez said over the shouts of “Fire Rizzo now!” and “Recall, recall!”

Rizzo did not attend the meeting. The council asked for the salary report to be available at the July 26 meeting.

“You’re either with us or against us — and if you’ve been earning a $100,000 a year, you’re against us,” said Cristina Garcia of the community group Bell Assn. to Stop the Abuse.

Group members said they planned to file recall papers against council members. In recent days, the group had passed out more than 9,000 fliers urging people to attend Monday’s meeting.

“I’m very angry,” said Leticia Arquino. “I literally have to work 24 hours to pay their salaries.”

A number of people waved signs that read “Stop the abuse on our taxes” and “Welcome to Bell, where the City Council makes more than you do. Also, we have nice parks.” One person had a sign showing Mayor Oscar Hernandez with devil horns.

As the meeting got underway, people were collecting signatures demanding an audit of all City Hall finances. Outside the tiny council chambers, people pressed against the door as fire officials threatened to shut down the meeting unless the crowds backed off.

Earlier in the day, Velez showed a reporter his statement of earnings and deductions, showing that the city paid him $310.62 every two weeks. His annual salary is about what his colleagues get paid each month. It was unclear what caused the discrepancy.

Velez said he bears some responsibility for not finding out the salaries of city employees, “but I was under the impression that I was being paid just like everyone else.”

Records show that the councilman whose resignation led to Velez’s appointment was quickly hired at the city’s food bank. According to city records, that councilman kept his salary after stepping down.

Council members receive the same benefits as city employees, including medical coverage and pension eligibility.

Velez, a heavy-equipment operator for the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, said he was “in shock” when he learned that the other council members were making nearly $100,000 annually. “I was truly surprised.”

The 55-year-old was appointed to the council to fill the unexpired term of Victor Bello, who resigned for undisclosed reasons in August. Almost immediately after Bello left the council, he became the only full-time employee at the city food bank, working as an assistant to the food-bank coordinator, according to Rizzo.

Rizzo said no one had the job before Bello.

Documents obtained by The Times under the California Public Records Act show that in September 2009, Bello was being paid $96,600 a year — the same as council members, except for Velez.

The documents also show that Bello was being paid for sitting on four city boards. But according to resolutions the council approved in June 2008, commissioners on those boards must be council members.

Bello could not be reached for comment Monday. Jacobo, the vice mayor, said she thought Bello was a volunteer at the food bank. When she learned of his salary from The Times, she “was angry.”

The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office is investigating the large salaries council members receive for their part-time positions. Bell has a population of about 40,000, 90% Latino and more than 50% foreign-born. It is one of the poorest cities in Los Angeles County.

Most of council members’ salaries come from serving on boards such as the Community Redevelopment Agency, the Community Housing Authority, the Planning Commission, the Public Financing Authority, the Surplus Property Authority and the Solid Waste and Recycling Authority.

City records show that in July 2009 council members received $8,083.25 per month for sitting on the boards. The records also show that the boards perform little work, with some meetings lasting only a minute.

Although his payroll records show Velez receiving $27.69 for sitting on one board and $42.74 for another, he said he knows nothing about them. As far as he was concerned, Velez said, he was taking part in council meetings only.

“The city of Bell cannot stand these kind of salaries,” Velez said, pointing out that the city has cut services and laid off employees.

In an interview last week with The Times, Hernandez, the mayor, and Councilman Luis Artiga justified their salaries by lauding city services and noting that no one had been laid off or forced to take furloughs.

Times staff writer Robert J. Lopez contributed to this report.