Think Again: For whom the Bell tolls

Over the last month, the drama in the city of Bell has been unfolding since the news on the extremely high salaries of certain city officials broke, among them Bell Police Chief Randy Adams, the former police chief in Glendale. The salaries ranged from $450,000 to $800,000 in a city of about 40,000 residents, located south of downtown Los Angeles.

In addition, four of the five city council members are getting paid close to $100,000 annually for sitting on various commissions, though they are technically part-time employees. The chief of the district attorney's Public Integrity Division, David Demerjian and Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown are looking into the situation.

Two things led to this. First, the city's leadership authorized a ballot measure for a special election that made Bell a "charter" city, allowing it to avoid a state law enacted that same year in 2005 that imposed salary caps for city councils. Only 400 of the city's 40,000 residents voted in that election, yet no public official saw an issue with this. The second factor was public apathy toward the city's affairs and city council decisions.

Thankfully, some Bell residents awakened the public into a revolt against these highly paid officials that led to the resignation of City Manager Robert Rizzo, Adams and Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia. The story is not over, as some are calling for a recall of the city council.

The other part of this issue is who is going to pay for the retirement pensions of these individuals who resigned. According to the Los Angeles Times, Rizzo would be the highest-paid retiree in the state's CalPERS retirement system, technically entitled to more than $659,000 per year for the rest of his life. Funding city employee pensions are an increasingly controversial issue confronting cities as they try to make ends meet with their budget shortfalls.

There are several important lessons to be learned from the city of Bell. First, when public officials begin to step on ethics principles, the clock will run out on them sooner or later.

A common test in the public relations and ethics fields is when you ask the question, "Will this withstand the Los Angeles Times test?" In other words, if what you're doing were to be covered on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, would it lead to public outrage like it did with the city of Bell? Ethical behavior is your conduct when no one is watching.

Many officials in Bell believed no one was watching, but their conduct didn't stand the ethics test. Some top officials at Bell didn't seem to want to upset the apple cart because they were all making a pretty penny off the city's coffers, including the city's police chief — the one person you would hope would be squeaky clean. Ethical problems usually start with small compromises that seem justified at the time, like greater local control over a city's finances, but then lead to more serious violations over time.

The second lesson is that local government should never take the public's trust for granted because it is essential to its ability to function. Public trust needs to always be the primary concern, as it is something that takes a long time to build, but only a moment to destroy. The conduct of leaders in any city sets the tone for the entire city, and it is a serious responsibility.

Finally, there is no substitute for citizen involvement in their local government and the electoral process. For democracy's system of checks and balances to work, it's necessary for citizens to be involved in the affairs of their city and government, including voting in every election. Otherwise, the risk we run is that which British historian Lord Acton pointed out when in 1887 he wrote, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

ZANKU ARMENIAN is a resident of Glendale and a corporate communications professional. He can be reached at zanku.armenian@gmail.com.

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