BELL, Calif. — Residents in this modest blue-collar Los Angeles suburb where one in six lives in poverty were angry: Their city manager was getting paid more than President Barack Obama and the police chief more than the commander of the nearly 13,000-member LAPD.
They demanded and got the manager, the chief and another high-salaried official to resign.
They looked for the culprits and found them in the very people they entrusted to lead their city of 40,000 people. Now, they’re campaigning to boot them out of office.
Their mayor and three of their four council members, people they see every day at the grocery store or church, approved the contracts, and put an obscure measure on the ballot that allowed council members to pay themselves any amount of money.
And they did: collecting between $90,000 and $100,000 a year as part-time officials.
“This is America and everything should be transparent,” plumber and longtime Bell resident Ralph Macias said.
In Bell, however, not many people really paid attention. The city of mostly small homes is like many American cities and towns: No newspaper covers them regularly, and the citizens spend what little free time they have with family and recreation.
A few who kept tabs on City Hall said they were suspicious because the officials were secretive, brusque and quick to act without explaining themselves.
“What caught us by surprise was the amount of money they were paying people,” said Ali Saleh, who helped form the Bell Association to Stop the Abuse, whose acronym BASTA, translates to “Enough!” in Spanish.
The salaries exploded into public view last week after a Los Angeles Times investigation, based on California Public Records Act requests, showed that the city payroll was bloated with all sorts of six-figure salaries:
– Chief Administrative Officer Robert Rizzo made $787,637 a year, getting a series of raises since being hired in 1993 at $72,000. President Obama makes $400,000.
– Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia made $376,288 a year.
– Police Chief Randy Adams earned $457,000. Hired just last year to oversee a force of fewer than 50 people, he was making 50 percent more than Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck’s $307,000.
All three Bell officials resigned after a late-night meeting Thursday.
“To the residents of Bell, we apologize,” Mayor Oscar Hernandez said.
Now, Hernandez and the council members may be next.
By law, the council would have had to approve the contracts in an open session, but several residents complained that officials are loathe to explain what they are doing and quick to race through matters at public meetings with little discussion.
The Times said Hernandez, Vice Mayor and Councilwoman Teresa Jacobo and Councilmen George Mirabal and Luis Artiga are paid $8,000 a year, plus about $8,000 a month for boards and commissions they sit on. The other council member, Lorenzo Velez, said he is only paid the base $8,000 salary.
Earlier in the week, both Hernandez and Artiga said they deserved their salaries, adding that in addition to council meetings twice a month they are constantly on call for city business.
“That would be obscene, to think we’re getting paid for only two meetings a month,” Artiga said. “But that’s only half the story.”
The residents’ group is demanding that the big salaries be cut by 90 percent or that the officials resign.
If they don’t resign, Saleh said, his group will initiate a recall. He gave the council until Monday’s meeting to respond. In the meantime, organizers planned to paper Bell with 12,000 flyers over the weekend, urging people to attend the meeting.
City officials have declined to respond to the recall threat. A message left on City Hall’s public information line was not returned nor were messages left for Hernandez at the grocery store he owns or on Artiga’s cell phone.
The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office and the state attorney general are looking into the salaries.
Artiga said earlier in the week that while some employees may be overpaid, no one, at least so far, has accused officials of stealing money or shaking down contractors. Instead, its officials boast of the city’s $22.7 million budget surplus, its well-kept parks, clean streets and programs at the community center for people of all ages.
Still, the salary scandal has left residents suspicious.
“I think they’re a bunch of crooks,” said Macias as he left City Hall after picking up a permit to install a water heater. “They should all be investigated by the feds.”