L.A. Now

After Bell scandal, new City Council gives residents hope

The Bell City Council was reborn this week after a nine-month scandal that landed all but one of the previous members in jail.

Five new members sat at a table Monday for their first official meeting and joined with the audience of several hundred in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Then the first person to sign up to speak to the new council approached a microphone, looking a bit nervous.

"Los felicito," Jaime Luna began in Spanish. ("I congratulate you.") He thanked the new members for having the courage to run for office and assume the responsibility of managing a city bankrupted by corruption and thievery.

Luna, 53, who has lived in Bell for 20 years, then switched to English and in a quavering voice, full of emotion, said, "I wish you the best."

Not long ago, Bell City Council meetings were full of anger and shouting. "There were times I feared for the safety of those council members," one Bell resident told me. "It was like a lynch mob in there. People wanted to hurt them."

But it was very moving on Monday when Luna, in a voice not much louder than a whisper, said: "Now I hope you work together for all the community."

He and the residents who spoke after him seemed eager to believe once again that government could work in their best interests.

"Newly elected council members, I welcome you into my city," Dale Walker said. "My people chose you in a fair election … because we believe you're going to make the right decisions."

Lots of different parts of American democracy feel broken these days. In California we've got a massive deficit, with a potential budget compromise blocked by a minority of die-hards determined to impose their vision on the rest of us.

The federal government lurched toward a shutdown this month, with the president and congressional leaders arguing about who was to blame, and then simply snapped back to business as usual, in an atmosphere of mutual distrust.

But in Bell this week, I got a big shot of good, old-fashioned American optimism.

More than a dozen people spoke, and not one said an ill word about any of the newly elected.

"This was like a pregnancy — it lasted nine months," one woman told the council. "And now I feel like you're my babies up there."

The new council members are a diverse lot — white and Latino, Muslim and Christian. They represent two competing election slates, with one unaffiliated member.

Miguel Angel Lopez expressed his gratitude to the new council members in three languages: "Thank you, gracias, shukran."

Maybe the people of Bell are humble and grateful because they know how low their city has sunk. Since The Times first started reporting on officials' inflated salaries last summer, Bell has become a national laughingstock.

Grace Luna, Jaime's wife, told me she recently entered a room only to be greeted with the joke, "Everyone hold on to your purses and wallets — there's someone from Bell here!"

For many, the anger and humiliation will not soon subside.

"I want Angela Spaccia to rot in hell," one person in line to enter the council chambers said of the former assistant city administrator, currently facing corruption charges.

Justice will come in the courts. But Bell already is experiencing something rare, if painfully produced.

People are paying close attention to the actions of their local government. After all, they've seen what can happen if you don't. It's a lesson that's being applied across California in an era of a crisis.

With money scarce, more of us are studying the misuse of Proposition 13, for instance, and the often strange practices of our massively funded redevelopment agencies.

In Bell, people are seeing things more clearly. Elias Acosta, a 28-year-old federal employee, told me how one former councilman seemed to flaunt his newfound wealth, buying luxury vehicles. Only now, Acosta says, does he understand what was going on.

"There's a lot of light on the city," Acosta told me outside the meeting room. "You get the feeling nothing that bad can happen again."

After an hour or so of public comment, the council conducted its first official act — selecting a mayor and vice mayor from its own ranks. Most of the new members are council rookies, and there were a few awkward and nervous moments.

"We're new at this," said Councilman Ali Saleh, who was eventually chosen mayor. Saleh, a clothing-shop owner and the son of Lebanese immigrants, promised to work to help make Bell a "model city."

Soon after, the meeting concluded and the new mayor joined constituents mingling in the meeting room. People talked about the past and the future and how Bell might climb out of its fiscal mess.

"We've been through a lot here," Luna told me. Friendships were broken by the scandal, he said, and some residents felt threatened when they pushed to have the old council removed. "We feared for our safety.

"I put all of my faith, all of my hope and all of my trust" in the new council, he said. "I hope that they're all good and will work for us."

But faith and goodwill won't be enough to be certain that happens.

As if to make sure Luna and the other residents understood that, Mayor Saleh at one point climbed back on the stage and interrupted the informal gathering. Shouting out in the friendly tone of a man inviting his neighbors to a barbecue, the mayor announced:

"The next council meeting is Wednesday night!"

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