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Bell gets free administrative aid from more prosperous cities

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For a while, it seemed like nobody wanted anything to do with Bell — least of all work for the city.

Battered and bruised from a massive corruption case that led to criminal charges against eight former officials, the small, working-class town in southeast Los Angeles County had difficulty hiring administrators and even struggled to find a firm to audit the books for the financially pressed city.

But now Bell is getting some unexpected help from well-heeled towns such as Beverly Hills and Santa Monica. Those cities, and others, have agreed to loan top-flight workers to help Bell right itself and dig out of a financial mess that has left it on the edge of insolvency.

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It is one of the few times — maybe the only time — in California that cities have agreed to provide free administrative aid to a struggling municipality, according to Ken Hampian, a former interim city administrator in Bell.

Beverly Hills is expected to provide Bell with an information technology analyst who will help update the city’s computer system and a management analyst to help draw up new city policies.

San Mateo, Calif., more than 300 miles to the north, has already sent a human resource director to help and in the coming days a temporary city clerk is expected to parachute into Bell.

Santa Monica, meanwhile, dispatched its deputy police chief in July to assist Hampian, the second person to run the town since Robert Rizzo was forced out and subsequently charged with public corruption.

Rizzo, his former assistant and six former council members are awaiting trial on felony charges of draining the city’s treasury by paying themselves exorbitant salaries and top-of-the-line retirement benefits and taking personal loans.

The previous administration was also accused of misusing bond money that resulted in Bell residents paying the second highest property taxes in the county. Median household income in Bell is $40,556 —- well below the countywide average of $57,152.

“The day-to-day normal infrastructures that you would find in cities … were missing,” Hampian said. “The corruption by the previous administration in Bell did a horrible disservice to the community, but also to the profession of city managers and public employees everywhere.”

According to Hampian, it is rare in California for one town to receive administrative assistance from another town. The practice of mutual aid, in which one town helps another, is typically reserved for public safety and firefighting, and on rare occasions, dealing with natural disasters.

“It’s an anomaly, we usually have cities that are professionally run,” said San Mateo City Manager Susan Loftus. “Fortunately, we don’t have to do this very often. It would be a sad state of affairs if it was a common practice.”

The help-Bell movement is being championed by the International City Management Assn. and the California League of Cities, organizations that were deeply critical of the city’s former leadership.

In addition to the pro bono work from cities, several retired government employees have offered to help Bell at no cost.

Among them was Hampian, who agreed to run the city until new leadership was found. Hampian’s replacement, Arne Croce, is serving as interim administrator until a full-time city manager is hired.

Under Hampian’s short tenure, bond experts provided pro bono work on the city’s debt obligation.

Other retired workers offering help include Pam Easter, the former assistant city manager of Rancho Cucamonga, who has been Bell’s acting assistant city administrator for almost a month.

A former San Luis Obispo planning director had also assisted Bell.

The newly elected council has expressed gratitude for the leadership bailout.

“I am sure many other residents of Bell appreciate their assistance,” Councilman Nestor Valencia said.

ruben.vives@latimes.com

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