BELL — Four years ago, the election issue that swept Councilmen George Cole and Ray Johnson into office was the growing mistrust of city government after a poker scandal that resulted in the conviction of two Bell officials.
As this year's City Council election approaches, the two incumbents, who are seeking reelection, say they have taken steps to restore public confidence in City Hall. And although that effort must be continued, they say, attention should now be focused on redevelopment and bolstering commercial activity in Bell.
"There was a lack of trust in city government, but we've come a long way," said Johnson, referring to a former Bell city administrator and councilman who were convicted in 1984 of various illegal activities in connection with the California Bell Club casino.
"We have taken steps to show people that local government has integrity."
Cole said the council has encouraged more public participation in local issues and last year started publishing a community newsletter.
"What we've tried to do is make city government more accessible to people," said Cole, director of the nonprofit Steelworkers Oldtimers Foundation in South Gate.
Cole, 38, and Johnson, 65, a retired college administrator who also served on the council from 1976 to 1980, are running against political newcomer Hortencia G. Perez, a 45-year-old nutrition counselor.
Perez concedes that the councilmen have served their constituents well, but she said that this predominantly Latino community of 28,000 is ready for its first Latino councilwoman.
"We need more Hispanic representation here," said Perez, who is involved with various elementary and high school volunteer groups. "I can communicate the concerns of the young people and the adults."
Perez, a mother of five, says that increasing sales tax revenue is important, but Bell's young people should be the council's first priority.
Perez said the city needs to work on the gang problem. She proposed establishing after-school youth activities at the parks and urging local business people to hire more teen-agers.
"We don't have enough things for the kids to do here," Perez said. "There is nothing going on at the parks and we don't have a movie theater. Ever since I can remember I have had to go out of the area to get things for my kids."
Cole agrees that there is a lack of youth activities in the city, but said that redevelopment is one way to provide more services to the city's youths.
"Our commercial redevelopment project will provide kids with more green space to play in, a soccer field, a community center," Cole said, referring to the 8.1-acre Bell Square project.
The project is the showpiece of the city's most ambitious redevelopment plan--a 670-acre project area adopted in 1986 that runs along Atlantic, Gage and Florence avenues.
Bell Square will include a 90,000-square-foot shopping center, an elementary school, a soccer field, a community center and a park. Ground breaking is expected sometime this spring.
"This shopping center is very important to the city," Johnson said. "It will provide our residents with a place to go for cultural events, a place for our kids, and it'll also provide the city with revenue."
Cole said that former city officials had ignored Bell's business district, focusing instead on promoting the California Bell Club--the city's single largest source of tax revenue.
Still a Major Concern
Although much of the controversy that surrounded the casino in 1984 has dissipated, the poker club is still a major concern, Cole and Johnson said.
The city is buying the casino in hopes of settling the legal and managerial disputes that have plagued it since it opened in 1980.
"We must keep the city strong fiscally. That is one reason we are working on the club," Johnson said. "We need to make sure that there is management there that keeps the organization viable."
Perez said she is skeptical of the city's plan to purchase the club. In fact, she said, it was a mistake to bring poker to Bell in the first place.
"I am still leery of the Bell Club, with all the promises that had been made and not kept," Perez said. "I'm not too sure I approve of the city's plan. We have other things we need to focus on."
So far, campaigning has been low-key. Only Cole has held a fund-raiser and the three candidates said they have not put up signs or distributed campaign flyers.
Cole's $75-a-plate fund-raiser at the Embassy Suites hotel in Downey brought in $12,225 in contributions from mainly Southeast area business people. According to campaign statements filed with the city clerk last week, contributors included Assemblywoman Teresa Hughes (D-Los Angeles) and Rep. Matthew G. Martinez (D-Montebello) who contributed $150 each.
Dallas-based developers, Trammell Crow--the city's largest landowner--contributed $750.
So far, Cole is leading the most expensive campaign with $5,228 in expenditures.
Johnson has raised $565 and spent the same amount, records show.
Perez said in her financial statement that she had $760 in contributions and the same amount in expenditures.
Council members are elected to four-year terms and are paid a monthly stipend of $310.
City Clerk Maria G. Hernandez and City Treasurer Hazel F. Collett are also up for reelection in April.
Hernandez was appointed city clerk in May, 1987, after the former city clerk resigned. Her opponent is Clara M. Herrera, a clerk-typist with the city for eight years.
Collett, an administrative secretary at City Hall for 14 years, is running unchallenged for her third term as city treasurer.
Both the city clerk and city treasurer are part-time positions. The city clerk is paid $752 and the city treasurer receives $300 a month. Candidates are elected to four-year terms.