Bell City Council recall, California (March 2011)
- Jacobo's vacated seat was won by Danny Harber.
- Artiga's vacated seat was won by Ana Maria Quintana.
- Ali Saleh, Nestor Valencia and Violeta Alvarez won the other three seats on the city council.
The recall effort was launched in July 2010. Recall supporters started collecting signatures on recall petitions in early September. Signatures were submitted to elections officials in early October and were determined to be sufficient to force a recall election.
Hernandez, Artiga, Jacobo and Mirabel were arrested on September 21, 2010. Four others were arrested as well, including two former city councilmen, George Cole and Victor Bello, former city manager Robert Rizzo, and former assistant city manager Angela Spaccia.
City council member Lorenzo Velez was the only city official who was not served with recall papers. Unlike the other city council members, Velez was not receiving a salary beyond $600 per month. In the wave of anger at incumbent city council members, however, Velez lost his seat on the council in the March 8, 2011 election.
Extreme anger at the members of the city council from residents erupted as a wave of national publicity was given to the discovery that Bell's Chief Administrative Officer Robert Rizzo was being paid $800,000 a year by the city.
A group called "Bell Association to Stop the Abuse" (BASTA) formed in the wake of the revelations. Cristina Garcia, a member of the group, told the city council, "You’re either with us or against us – and if you’ve been earning $100,000 a year, you’re against us."
After the city council members agreed to slash their own pay in late July, members of the pro-recall group continued to call for resignations and recalls. Ali Saleh of BASTA said of the salary reductions, "It's not enough. The people don't trust them anymore. They lost complete trust from the community, and for the better of the community, they should resign."
Bell is a small industrial city in southeast Los Angeles County with a population of about 37,000. According to the U.S. Census, 88 percent of Bell’s residents speak a language other than English at home, while 91 percent of the city's residents are of Latino origin.
Candidates on March 8 ballot
17 candidates filed to run for Bell City Council in the combined municipal/recall election that took place on March 8, 2011.
The candidates were:
Running for the seat held by recall target Teresa Jacobo:
- Recall target Teresa Jacobo
- Coco Ceja. The Los Angeles Times endorsed Ceja.
- Danny Harber. Harber was endorsed by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. Harber won this election.
Running for the seat held by recall target Luis Artiga:
- Ana Maria Quintana. Quintana is an attorney who holds a master's degree in economics. She was endorsed by the Los Angeles Times. Quintana won this election.
- Donald H. Tavares
- Lorenzo Miguel Martinez. Martinez was endorsed by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.
- Miguel Alejandro Sanchez. (Mr. Sanchez died unexpectedly of natural causes just days before the March 8 election.)
- Janice Leal Bass
Running for one of three open seats:
- Ali Saleh. At a candidate forum, Saleh said that if elected he promised "...no more taxes, no more taxes." Saleh was a BASTA-related candidate. He was endorsed by the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. Saleh won.
- Mario Rivas. Rivas was the recycling coordinator for the city of Huntington Park. He was a "Justice for Bell" candidate. He was endorsed by the Los Angeles Times.
- Nestor Enrique Valencia. Valencia, a healthcare manager, was a "Justice for Bell" candidate. He believed that the Bell Police Department was involved in the abuses and supported a proposed switch to outside law enforcement from the county sheriff's department. He was endorsed by the Los Angeles Times. Valencia won.
- Violeta Alvarez. Alvarez was endorsed by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. Alverez won.
- Imelda Serrano
- Marcos A. Oliva
- Lorenzo S. Velez
- Fidencio Joel Gallardo. Gallardo was endorsed by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.
- Estela Mota
- Guillermo "Willie" Aguilar
- Lorenzo Miguel Martinez
- Miguel Sanchez
July 25 demonstration
On July 25, 2010 about 300 Bell residents demonstrated in the streets, demanding resignations.
The crowd marched to the homes and the offices of Mayor Oscar Hernandez, Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo and city council members Luis Artiga and George Mirabal. In front of each of these locations, the crowd paused for silence and reflection, and then cried out "fuera!" and "out!"
Fifteen-year Bell resident Jesus Casas was one of the demonstrators. He said: "This city has woken up. They all knew what they were doing.... We want a city government that will represent by the people and for the people. Revolutions are caused by inequality, by a conflict between social classes. And that is what you have here...A united town will succeed."
Artiga supports recall, resigns
Recall target Luis Artiga, a pastor, resigned from the city council after being charged with misappropriation of city funds. In September, Artiga indicated that while he supported the recall, he felt that if he resigned, this could result in the remaining majority of recall targets on the Bell City Council appointing a replacement who shared the views of the remaining recall targets on the subjects that divided them from recall supporters. This could have resulted in a situation where his replacement might have had views offensive to recall supporters at the same time that the replacement would have not been vulnerable to recall.
- Chief Administrative Officer Robert Rizzo: $787,637. Rizzo's contract called for a 12 percent annual pay raise every July.
- Police Chief Randy Adams: $457,000.
- Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia: $376,288.
In the wake of the revelations about their salaries, the three resigned their positions.
The mayor and members of the city council, except for Lorenzo Velez, were being paid $96,996 every year. The Los Angeles District Attorney opened an investigation into the salaries, saying that in a city with the population of Bell, part-time city council members would ordinarily be earning about $5,000 per year. The D.A.'s office said that the additional salaries in Bell going to the city council members appeared to have been generated by the city council members paying themselves to belong to a variety of city commissions and boards.
Mayor Oscar Hernandez defended the salaries, saying, "The average income for a person in our area is $32,000 and $38,000 a year. In a troubled city , the city council should get paid a little more."
Council member Lorenzo Valdez learned as a result of the ongoing investigations that he was receiving far less in annual salary than all his colleagues on the city council.
On July 26, 2010 the city council voted to slash its pay by 90 percent. Mayor Hernandez and Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo said that they would take no salary for the remainder of their current term.
At the July 26 meeting, Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo said she would not resign and that she would "stand by my people." Raquel McLafferty, a Bell resident attending the meeting, said, "How dare you try to take a penny more from our pockets. Do the city a favor. We don't want you here, and we are not your people."
Review of auditor
Mayer Hoffman McCann is a financial auditing firm. It was the firm that performed audits on Bell's finances over preceding years.
In the wake of what the Los Angeles Times referred to as "its failure to flag repeated fraud and mismanagement in [Bell]," Mayer Hoffman McCann retained an independent accounting firm to investigate its work on Bell's books, to determine how it was that Mayer Hoffman McCann failed to take note of the financial fraud and mismanagement in the city.
The audits were also under investigation by State Controller John Chiang. Chiang's office, in an audit of Bell's books, concluded Bell "illegally collected nearly $7 million in taxes from residents, misspent millions more in bond money and misused state gas tax funds."
A city charter approved by voters in 2005 has been cited as a significant reason that the pay scandal developed. The 2005 charter was also an issue in the recall election since unlike the more typical laws governing recall in California, the Bell charter stipulates that when a recall election is held, the election of a replacement to the targeted office is not held at the same time as the recall vote. Rather, the election to fill any seat or seats left vacant by a recall, under the Bell charter, must occur at a later date.
Path to the ballot
Signatures equalling at least 25 percent of the number of registered voters in the city had to be collected within 120 days of the time that election officials approved the form of a recall petition. This amounted to about 2,500 signatures for each recall target.
BASTA announced that signature-gathering on the recall petitions began over Labor Day weekend in early September 2010.
Criticisms of BASTA
Some recall-supporting residents of Bell said that the official recall organization, BASTA, had been taken over by "aspiring politicians and professional insiders."
BASTA was receiving financial support from Bell's police union.
Bell resident Annette Robles said, "They brought the insiders in. I don't feel like they're doing anything for the people."
California State Assemblyman Hector De La Torre was among those raising questions: "Now you have a political consultant and you've got an out-of-city activist as your leaders. That doesn't smack as grass-roots to me. Who are all these people and who invited them?"
On April 16, 2014, Rizzo was sentenced to 12 years in state prison. He was also ordered to pay roughly $8.8 million in restitution. Rizzo said, "I breached the public's confidence by starting to look at the position more towards myself than the community. I am very, very sorry for that."
- Los Angeles Times, "Bell voters cast out the old and opt for the new," March 8, 2011
- KSWT, "Residents warn of recall if council members remain," July 23, 2010
- My Fox LA, "Bell City Council Recall Campaign Begins," September 5, 2010
- Mercury News, "Bell organizers: Recall drive qualifies for ballot," September 29, 2010
- New York Times, "City official arrested in Los Angeles," September 22, 2010
- Wave Newspapers, "Four Bell council members served with recall notices," August 16, 2010
- Los Angeles Times, "Bell residents outraged that city council takes no action against top official," July 19, 2010
- MSNBC's First Read, "Calif. probe spotlights absentee ballot abuse," August 9, 2010
- Los Angeles Times, "7 additional candidates file to run for Bell City Council," December 24, 2010
- Los Angeles Times, "Rebuilding Bell," February 7, 2011
- Southern California Public Radio, "LA Labor endorses five candidates for Bell City Council," February 25, 2011
- Mercury News, "Bell council candidate dies days before election," March 5, 2011
- Associated Press, "Candidates in CA recall election vow to be honest," February 3, 2011
- Los Angeles Times, "Protesters in Bell seek ouster of mayor, vice mayor and 2 councilmen," July 26, 2010
- ABC-TV, "Bell city councilman supports recall effort," September 14, 2010
- Los Angeles Times, "Is a City Manager Worth $800,000?," July 15, 2010
- Los Angeles Times, "Residents irate as Bell council requests report on salaries," July 20, 2010
- Los Angeles Times, "D.A. investigating why Bell council members get nearly $100,000 a year for a part-time job," June 24, 2010
- Washington Post, "High-paid CA council members vote to slash pay," July 27, 2010
- Los Angeles Times, "Bell council members cut salaries 90%; some will forgo pay," July 27, 2010
- Washington Post, "Auditor who missed Bell scandals to undergo review," December 11, 2010
- Los Angeles Times, "Recall effort could halt city operations in scandal-plagued Bell," August 26, 2010
- SCPR.Org, "Bell recall campaign to begin this weekend," September 5, 2010
- Los Angeles Times, "Bell residents question city's grass-roots organization," September 17, 2010
- CBS Los Angeles, "Robert Rizzo Sentenced to 12 Years in Bell Corruption Case," April 16, 2014