It was just a few months ago that a Bell City Council meeting meant a crowd of people yelling at the council members. "Crooks" was one of the milder epithets.
But Monday night, a new five-member council was greeted mainly with expressions of hope, anticipation and kind words at its first meeting.
A full house of about 270 people filled the Bell Community Center. An additional 25 or so listened outside where a loudspeaker was set up. "It's a new beginning, a new city," said Roger Ramirez, 57. "It's like having a new city come to life."
It was Ramirez who in 2008 filed a public records request for the salaries of former City Administrator Robert Rizzo and the City Council and was given false information. Rizzo and seven other former Bell officials have been charged with multiple felonies in a sweeping corruption case.
Although their names were not spoken during the 55-minute meeting, the former officials still hung like a dark cloud over the meeting.
"We've been repressed for so long, it's nice to see all this openness," said Manny Delgadillo, owner of a Mexican restaurant in Bell who had his run-ins with the Rizzo administration.
The council voted 3 to 2 to make Ali Saleh, who runs a family clothing business, the mayor. The deciding vote was cast by Danny Harber, the other candidate for the office. Harber was elected vice mayor. The two positions rotate annually among council members.
"There's a long road ahead of us," Saleh told the audience. "A lot of stuff needs to be fixed at City Hall."
Despite the optimism, the council faces the daunting task of dealing with Bell's financial troubles. The city is nearly insolvent and needs to cut $3.5 million to $4.5 million, about one-third of its budget. One possible solution is replacing the Police Department with Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies.
Also attending the meeting were former Councilmen Rolf Janssen and Pete Werrlein, a former mayor who was sentenced to three years in prison in the 1980s for holding a hidden interest in a poker casino.
"I have an interest in the community," Werrlein said. "I want to see how it goes."
Once close to Rizzo, Werrlein said he hadn't talked to him in recent months.
Residents strode to the microphone to speak to the council they had just elected. "I don't want liars at the City Council," said 76-year-old Carmen Bella. "Please don't lie to us, because sooner or later we'll find out that you lied."
Coco Ceja, a losing council candidate, called the seating of the new council "like a pregnancy, a nine-month battle," referring to the start of the scandal when The Times revealed that council members were making nearly $100,000 a year, Rizzo $1.5 million and Police Chief Randy Adams $457,000. "Don't lose sight of who you are representing."
The outspoken Harber called out to a man in the audience who was worried about the council spending money. "I'm frugal with my money," said Harber, a retired baker. "I'll be frugal with yours."