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Bell’s corruption scandal has boosted scrutiny of other cities

Awakened by the salary scandal in Bell, newly engaged citizens are turning out at community meetings and city halls across California, demanding public documents, asking tough questions and pushing for change.

The common theme is suspicion that something underhanded is going on in city government. But whether residents have rooted out corruption or just imagined it is up for debate.


FOR THE RECORD:
Citizen activists: An article in the Feb. 21 Section A about citizen activists in Lindsay reported that City Council members are paid $100 a month. Council members receive $50 a month; the mayor is paid $75 a month. —


In Hercules, a city of 25,000 north of Berkeley, Mayor Ed Balico stepped down in January after residents threatened to recall him. Balico was seen as being too close to a city manager who had already been pushed out following allegations that his relatives had received $3 million in affordable housing contracts.

Redlands council members considered dismissing City Manager N. Enrique Martinez in November after residents objected to his $231,229 salary, and residents in Chula Vista pressured the City Council to study the salaries of top officials.

Even in leafy, upscale Thousand Oaks, citizens are demanding big cuts to council members’ health benefits.

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But in the wake of the civic implosion in Bell, some of the strongest tensions between a city hall and its citizens are playing out in Lindsay, a tiny city smack in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley farm belt.

On a recent day, Lindsay’s newest activists — two realtors, a corrections officer and a federal data clerk — sat around a dining room table, stacks of city documents in neat piles in front of them.

Six month ago, Yolanda Flores, Lorena Vasquez, Steve Mecum and his wife, Delma, didn’t know a general fund from an enterprise account. Now they toss the terms around like budding lobbyists, eager to explain their suspicions of malfeasance at City Hall.

For years, Lindsay has struggled to overcome white flight, rising poverty, vacant storefronts and a 19% unemployment rate. City officials have spent tens of millions trying to reverse the slide, sprucing up walkways in the business core, building a new aquatic center and a sports and entertainment complex, and launching a Mexican-style outdoor market that reflects the city’s predominately Latino population.

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But some residents, including those gathered at the Mecums’ rambling home, see a dark side to the work. The city manager, they say, was overpaid at $214,405 a year and city leaders showed favoritism in awarding grants and contracts. This fall, they rallied hundreds of residents to demand salary cuts, lower water rates and greater transparency at City Hall.

Things got so heated that City Manager Scot Townsend — the man credited with shepherding the redevelopment efforts — resigned after allegedly receiving death threats. Three other officials also quit, including the town’s finance director and a City Council member. Allies said the four were weary of being verbally attacked.

Delma Mecum, a realtor, was questioned by the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department about a flier left at Townsend’s home that allegedly threatened the city manager and his family. Mecum flatly denied that anyone from her group sent the flier. But the Mecums are unapologetic about Townsend’s abrupt departure.

“Things happen when no one is looking,” said Steve Mecum, a correctional officer at nearby Corcoran State Prison. “And we walked into a big mess.”

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Angered and in the mood for change, residents in Lindsay enlisted the help of BASTA, the grass-roots activist group that has championed reform in Bell. Lindsay is one of at least five cities in California that have turned to the group.

Tucked against the Sierra Nevada foothills, Lindsay has one main corridor, Honolulu Street, leading into its downtown. Attractive aging brick buildings grace several blocks of a business core that includes an old movie theater with a high neon marquee and a family-run hardware store. The vibe speaks of a Mayberry past, when the city was thriving with two auto dealerships, an olive-packing plant and dozens of agricultural businesses.

Many downtown buildings are now vacant. The surrounding neighborhoods are filled with modest, single-story homes, the kinds that flew up after World War II. The sidewalks are busy with Latino mothers pushing strollers and surrounded by children. The white farming elite still hold many positions of power, but Latinos, who make up 80% of the city’s population, increasingly have joined the City Council, business groups and civic associations.

When BASTA leaders arrived in the Tulare County city in October, armed with T-shirts and loads of advice, more than 800 residents turned out to meet them.

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Unlike Bell, however, there is no united front among Lindsay’s 11,600 residents.

At meetings, pro-City Hall forces sit across the aisle from critics and letters to the editors in the local newspaper rage back and forth between the two sides. Lorena Vasquez said she is sometimes snubbed by acquaintances at the neighborhood grocery store.

“We’ve been called thugs, a Mexican cartel and rabble-rousers,” she said.

Beatrice Robinson, 32, was raised in Lindsay and remembers a tired, crumbling town with few things for young people to do. Now she sees promise.

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“The leaders in the community have done so much,” she said. “Mr. Townsend spent 20-plus years trying to bring up the people who unfortunately tore him down.”

The uprising started in September when the Visalia Times-Delta published the salaries of Lindsay’s top officials. Though modest in contrast to the extreme salaries handed out in Bell, the pay of the city manager angered some Lindsay residents.

Others were upset about high water rates charged by a city-owned utility and city documents that they said revealed low-interest home loans being awarded to City Hall insiders. Vasquez, a data clerk, said she was on a waiting list for seven years before she finally gave up and bought a house on her own.

Mayor Ed Murray said the city’s critics are simply misinformed. Water rates are higher because Lindsay is unable to draw from polluted local aquifers, and Townsend’s salary was higher than administrators in other like-sized cities because he was experienced in leveraging the state and federal dollars that made Lindsay shine, Murray said.

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“When we hired him, we knew we were willing to pay more to get Scot to do those jobs, and he’s done them well,” he said. “But people didn’t want to hear about that.”

The mayor confirmed critics’ assertion that many of the low-income mortgages were being awarded to city employees. The city gives preference to police, firefighters and teachers to encourage them to live in the city where they work, he said.

Murray believes that much of the dissent is based on misinformation, the long shadow of the scandal in Bell and frustration over the slow pace of economic recovery.

“We are not Bell,” he said, noting that council members are paid $100 a month and receive no health insurance. “We’re not awarding huge salaries and we’re not giving the city manager $100,000 loans. Nothing illegal has been done here in Lindsay.”

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For his part, Townsend said he was disappointed to leave under a cloud but no longer feels bitter. He declined to talk about the alleged death threat.

“We had a great run. I got paid 10% to 20% more than my counterparts,” he said. “And the citizens, it’s their community and they have a right to ask how much you get paid.”

Townsend now works as a real estate consultant and divides his time between Lindsay, where his oldest son is a senior in high school, and Salt Lake City, where the rest of his family settled.

Last month when the Lindsay City Council appointed a new member, they selected a social program case manager at the local school district over nine other candidates, including Steve Mecum, Vasquez and Flores.

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Steve Mecum said he wasn’t surprised, calling the social worker the hand-picked favorite of the other council members. Undaunted, he and other activists returned to City Hall the next morning to request documents relating to a local low-income housing developer.

“We’re not going back to our couch to watch television,” Mecum said. “We’re going to see this through.”

catherine.saillant@latimes.com


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