Bell, California

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Transparency grading process
Bell is a city in Los Angeles County, California. Its population was 35,477 at the 2010 census, down from 36,664 in the 2000 census.[1] Bell is located on the west bank of the Los Angeles River. At 2.5 square miles, Bell is number thirteen[2] in the list of the 25 smallest cities in the United States that have a population of at least 25,000 (ranked from smallest to largest in area).

In 2007, the U.S. Census Bureau ranked Bell's land area at 1245 out of 1257 cities (defined as incorporated areas) and two unincorporated areas that had a population of at least 25,000 in year 2000.

City residents voted to become a charter city in a special municipal election on November 29, 2005. Fewer than 400 voters turned out for that special election.[3]

Website evaluation

See also: Evaluation of California city websites

This website was most recently evaluated Jan. 31, 2013.

In 2013 Bell developed a new transparency portal modeled after Sunshine Review, Institute For Local Government guidelines[4]; and State of California transparency laws.[5]

The good

  • Budget
    • The current city budget is available.[6]
    • Budgets are archived for three years.
  • Meetings
    • Meeting agendas and minutes are posted and archived for three years.[7]
    • Meeting schedules are published on the city calendar.[8]
  • Elected Officials
    • Council members are listed with full contact information.[9]
  • Administration
    • Contact information for city administration officials is posted.[10]
  • Zoning
    • Zoning ordinance is posted.[11]
    • Permit applications and permit process is posted.[12]
  • Contracts
    • Requests for Proposals are listed online.[13]
    • Current contracts are posted.[14]
  • Public Records Request
    • Public records can be requested online, and citizens can contact the City Clerk's office for assistance.[15]
  • Audits
    • Most recent financial audit is posted.[16]
  • Lobbying
    • The City discloses it's a member of the California League of Cities and membership dues are available.
    • The City discloses it hires lobbyists and the total amount spent on lobbying.[17]
  • Taxes
    • Tax revenues are broken down by federal, state, and local funding in the budget.
    • Local taxes, like property taxes, are available online.
    • Residents are able to pay taxes online.[18]

The bad

  • Audits
    • Financial audits are not archived for at least three years.

Budget

Bell faces a budget deficit of $4 million, and may face insolvency in the near future.[19][20] The city has been forced to refund $5 million in illegal taxes taken under former City Manager Robert Rizzo, and owes $600,000 for services to City Atty. Jamie Casso and his law firm.[20] The city is considering disbanding its police department, which it spent $6 million on in 2009.[20] In August, 2011, the city was ordered to repay $500,000 to the California Department of Parks and Recreation, for failing to properly spend grant money given in 2003 and 2004.[19]

The city budget is available here.

Public officials

Elected officials

The city is governed by a 5 member City Council. Members can be found | here.[21]

Administrative officials

The current Interim City Manager, hired in August 2011, is Arne Croce, former city manager of San Mateo, California. Croce Ken Hampian, who was chosen to fill the position for a short period of time following the resignation and indictment of former city manager Roger Rizzo.[22]

A few other key administrative officials can be found here.

Salaries

Interim City Manager Arne Croce will be paid $3,230 per week, and will receive no benefits.[22] The City Clerk's website posts a link to salary data provided by the State Comptroller's Office.[23]

City salary scandal

It was revealed in July of 2010 that the Chief Administrative Officer Robert Rizzo was earning a salary of $787,637, with annual 12 percent raises.[24] The total for his salary came to $1.5 million when benefits were included.[25] The LA Times reported it may be the highest paid city manager position in the nation.[26] The City Council was also paying its police chief $457,000, more than Los Angeles Police Chief, $845,906 when benefits were added in.[27] The Assistant City Manager, Angela Spaccia's, salary of $376,288 doubled when benefits were included.[27] A story by the Los Angeles Times also reported that Bell council members earn almost $100,000 for part-time work.[24] On average the city council was earning $8,083 per month.[24]

Rizzo had also hidden $4.5 million in a supplemental retirement account.[28] The account was created for Rizzo and Angela Spaccia to allow them to skirt IRS regulations capping government pensions. Another retirement account was created for 40 other employees to also help them receive pay above the IRS regulations.[28]

All of the elected officials resigned shortly after, but constituents are still on the hook to pay the officials pensions. Rizzo's pension may cost taxpayers $31 million over his lifetime, annually costing them around $1 million.[29] However, CalPERS is investigating the situation, and currently the benefits have been frozen.[30] Rizzo also approved pension increases for 41 other Bell employees that exceed state limits and will increase pension costs by 85 percent.[31] Assistant City Administrator Angela Spaccia could receive an annual pension of more than $375,000.

Other high salaries were revealed shortly after the investigation was launched. The city's director of administrative services, Lourdes Garcia, was earning $422,707, and the director of general services, Eric Eggena, earned $421,402.[32] These figures include benefits and other compensation.

Also, it was reported that the director of community services, Annette Peretz, earned $273,542, a deputy city engineer earned $247,573, the business development coordinator earned $295,627, a police captain earned $238,075 and a police lieutenant earned $229,992.[32] Four of five council members received nearly $100,000 a year for their part-time service.[33] Council members have since voted to reduce the pay for the part-time position to about $8,000 annually.[33]

The audit firm employed by the city of Bell during a period of financial shenanigans that led to criminal indictments of former elected municipal leaders has been fined and sanctioned by a state regulatory agency for its conduct.[34]

Resignation, arrests, and trial

Eight city officials and former officials were arrested on Sept. 21, 2010 as a result of the salary and pension scandal.[33] Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley called the case "corruption on steroids."[33] City manager Rizzo was charged with 53 counts of misappropriation of public funds and conflict of interest.[33] In March, 2011, Rizzo and his assistant, Angela Spaccia, were indicted on an additional 7 charges.[35] Rizzo is also performing 80 hours of community service after being convicted of drunk driving.[36] Also taken into custody and charged:[37]

  • former Mayor Oscar Hernandez
  • former Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia
  • Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo
  • council members George Mirabal
  • council member Luis Artiga
  • former council members George Cole
  • former council member Victor Bello

Former Police Chief Randy Adams was not arrested. He made $457,000 a year.[33] When explaining why he was not arrested, the District Attorney explained, "Being paid excessive salaries is not a crime. Illegally obtaining those salaries is a crime."[33] The case against the officials may be dismissed after a Judge said that Jerry Brown may have overreached his powers by asking the officials be forced to repay the city for the stolen funds.[38]

In July, 2011, a judge ruled that the city would not have to pay for the cost's of Robert Rizzo's legal defense, agreeing that Rizzo's actions for which he was brought before the court were for his own personal gain, and not having to do with city business.[39]

Eric Eggena, the city's former city attorney, is suing the city for $837,000, including compensation for 329 unused sick and vacation days. Eggena's house was also one of the ones searched by authorities. When Eggena went to work for Bell in 2002 he earned $90,000 a year, but his salary nearly tripled over the next eight years, his total compensation swelling to $421,000 annually, putting him in the top tier of city officials nationwide. In addition to his salary, the city paid the employee portion of Eggena's Medicare and Social Security deductions, and he accumulated double sick and vacation time, according to his contracts.[40]

The lawsuit, filed June 29 but not served on the city until last week, says Eggena's contract entitles him to 18 months of severance in addition to 192 days of vacation time and 137 sick days and contributions to deferred compensation plans.[41]

Corruption trials for former Bell officials begin the week of Jan. 14, 2013. Jury selection begins Jan. 15 and the trial is scheduled to last seven weeks. Key witnesses are expected to be former city employees and officials who discovered the shady dealings and were granted immunity from prosecution for their testimony. A judge who presided at a preliminary hearing for the officials concluded they had shirked their responsibilities and sold out their constituents for financial gain. Testimony at the trial is expected to focus on the creation of sham boards and commissions such as the city’s Surplus Property Authority, which met a handful of times between 2005 and 2010 and never for more than a minute or two. Hall calculated that resulted in council members being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars an hour for sitting on the authority’s board.[42]

Jurors spent 17 days behind closed doors before convicting Victor Bello, George Cole, Oscar Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal of driving up their salaries.[43] Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy declared a mistrial on the remaining accounts due to issues with the divided jury.[44]

Pensions

Bell officials are looking to gain back some of the high pensions paid to former employees. Bell paid almost $1 million into CalPERS to buy extra years of service for 11 officials, the Los Angeles Times reported. CalPERS has now ruled the money Bell paid for extra time belongs to the city. But some officials received inflated payments before the scandal about the city's finances broke, UPI reported.[45]



Lobbying

Transparency and public records

The City Clerk's webpage now contains an online form for requesting public records from the city under the California Public Records Act.[46]

Transparency following the scandal

Several officials have come forward to demand greater transparency as a result of the Bell salaries. State Controller John Chiang expanded salary reporting requirement that all cities and counties must report salaries to him by October 15th of this year and that the salaries will be posted on the Controller's website in November.[47] Treasurer Bill Lockyer has proposed new auditing rules which would require reporting large pay increases that affect pension benefits.[48] Both of the officials have roles in CalPERS, California's retirement system, who knew about the salaries since 2006.[48]

Then Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown called for an investigation into the situation.[48] Sen. Lou Correa has proposed the Taxpayer Right to Know Act, which would create database of public employee salaries.[49] The League of California Cities is also drafting legislation to proactively disclose salary and pension information for local employees.[50] The League of California Cities has insisted for the transparency effort to work the legislation must encourage citizen engagement, transparency, and local control.[50]

Most recently, a judge rejected the request by the attorney general’s office to put a monitor in charge of Bell’s finances.[51]

Public records lawsuit

In the wake of the city manger, the city was refusing to comply with the California Public Records Act, and would not disclose numerous amounts of data to the LA Times including the salaries of the Interim City Manager Pedro Carrillo and Finance Director Lourdes Garcia.[52] The LA Times is filing a public records lawsuit asking a judge to force the city to hand over the information.[52]

It was reported that boxes were being removed from City Hall late at night in August 2010, well after normal city hours. The interim Chief Administrator Pedro Carrillo insisted no documents were shredded and that a document cataloging firm had been hired to make copies of records.[53]

External links

References

  1. County and City Data Book: 2007. U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved 2010-07-23
  2. Smallest Cities in the United States, Geography.about.com, 2010-07-26
  3. Bell council seeks resignations of 3 city officials, "Los Angeles Times," July 21, 2010
  4. See Institute for Local Government Local Agency Website Transparency Opportunities, available at http://www.ca-ilg.org/post/local-agency-website-transparency-opportunities
  5. Virtual Strategy, City of Bell, Calif. Unveils New Transparent Website, Jan. 24, 2013
  6. Budget
  7. Meetings
  8. Meeting Schedule
  9. Council
  10. Administration
  11. Zoning
  12. Permits
  13. RFP's
  14. Contracts
  15. Records Request
  16. Audit
  17. Lobbying
  18. Taxes
  19. 19.0 19.1 Bell Ordered to Repay $500,000 to State Agency, "NBC Los Angeles," August 8, 2011
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 La Times, Bell nearly broke, faces drastic cuts, audit finds, Dec. 18, 2010
  21. Council
  22. 22.0 22.1 Bell hires 'one of the most respected city managers in California', "Los Angeles Times," August 12, 2011
  23. City Government Salaries
  24. 24.0 24.1 24.2 Bloomberg, California Official's $800,000 Salary in City of 38,000 Triggers Protests, July 20, 2010
  25. OC Register, O.C. cities dash to post personnel salaries, Aug. 8, 2010
  26. LA Times, Bell city manager might be highest paid in nation: $787,637 a year, July 14, 2010
  27. 27.0 27.1 LA Times, Benefits push Bell ex-manager's compensation to more than $1.5 million, Aug. 7, 2010
  28. 28.0 28.1 LA Times, Bell hopes to take back $4.5 million found in pension account created by Rizzo, April 26, 2011
  29. Watchdog, Pension debt rings Bell in pay scandal, July 28, 2009
  30. EMII, CalPERS Launches Salary Review, Aug. 6, 2010
  31. LA Times, Pensions for Rizzo, 40 other Bell employees will be larger than first estimated, Sept. 30, 2010
  32. 32.0 32.1 LA Times, Bell admits more hefty city salaries, Aug7, 2010
  33. 33.0 33.1 33.2 33.3 33.4 33.5 33.6 The Washington Post "8 arrested in California salary scandal" Sept. 22, 2010
  34. Culver City News, Mayer Hoffman sentenced to probation, has license suspended for its part in Bell scandal, Jan. 11, 2013
  35. Former Bell City Manager Indicted on New Charges, "NBC Los Angeles," March 30, 2011
  36. LA Times, Robert Rizzo is serving time behind cars, Jan. 13, 2011
  37. Cal Watch, DA: Bell Officials ‘Looted At Will’, Sept. 22, 2010
  38. LA Times, Attorney general's lawsuit against Bell officials could be in jeopardy, Nov. 5, 2010
  39. Judge Won't Order Bell to Pay Rizzo's Bills, "NBC Los Angeles," July 26, 2011
  40. LA Times, Ex-Bell official seeks $837,000 payout, Aug. 28, 2012
  41. LA Times, Ex-Bell official seeks $837,000 payout, Aug. 28, 2012
  42. Associated Press, Corruption trial set for 6 Calif. city leaders, Jan. 15, 2013
  43. LA Times, Bell trial ends in chaos, March 21, 2013
  44. LA Times, Bell trial ends in chaos, March 21, 2013
  45. UPI, Bell, Calif., officials got high pensions, March 6, 2013
  46. Public Records Request
  47. Sacramento Bee, Chiang orders California cities and counties to report salaries, Aug. 3, 2010
  48. 48.0 48.1 48.2 OC Register, Brian Calle: After Bell's toll, what's next?, Aug. 6, 2010
  49. OC Register, Lou Correa, Brandman and the ‘Taxpayer Right to Know Act’, Aug. 5, 2010
  50. 50.0 50.1 Daily News, Christopher McKenzie: Three keys to ensure more transparent city governments, Aug 8, 2010
  51. LA Times, L.A. judge rejects putting court-appointed monitor in charge of Bell, Dec. 7, 2010
  52. 52.0 52.1 LA Times, Bell withholds public records, Aug. 3, 2010
  53. LA Now, Boxes removed from Bell City Hall at night, but officials say no documents have been destroyed, Aug. 6, 2010