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'Personal City Government' Comes to Bell : The New England Town Meeting Moves West

June 12, 1988|JAMES M. GOMEZ | Times Staff Writer

BELL — Oscar Cerullo knew he was on the spot.

When asked who the mayor of his city is, the 25-year-old Bell resident stood a minute in silence and rubbed his chin.

"Let's see," he said thoughtfully with a slight smile. "I know I heard it before."

Inspiration finally came to him.

"I know," Cerullo said triumphantly before jumping into his car, parked in front of the Bell Post Office. "It's something Martinez!"

Lack of knowledge about city officials and what they do--as illustrated by the interview with Cerullo--is something Bell Mayor George Mirabal would like to see changed.

Low Voter Turnout

Acknowledging that only a handful of the city's 28,000 residents regularly attend City Council meetings and that only 1,600 voted in the last municipal elections, the council decided last week to hold a series of monthly town meetings throughout the city. It also allocated $2,000 to advertise the first six meetings.

First proposed by Mirabal in April, the meetings will give residents who normally do not concern themselves with city affairs a chance to see local government at work and learn about those who run it, he said.

The meetings, scheduled to begin in September, will be patterned after the centuries-old New England town meeting, in which townspeople openly debate a slate of issues. Bell's version, however, will be less formal.

Council members will not conduct business during the town meetings and will not vote on issues. The main topics to be discussed will be announced through mailings before each meeting, but the discussion will not be limited to those topics.

'Still Small Enough'

"This is city government at its best," said Mirabal, a council member for four years. "Bell is still small enough to allow this type of personal city government."

A Spanish interpreter will be available at the meetings, he said, and the council will consider citizens' comments in planning future city projects.

Dividing the rectangular 2.9-square-mile city into four segments, the City Council plans to hold the first two meetings at Bell's two mobile home parks--occupied mostly by senior citizens who rarely get a chance to attend council meetings.

Later, the council will meet at elementary schools, churches and parks in each of the four segments.

Although the concept is not new in Southern California--Whittier recently held a town meeting to discuss earthquake reconstruction--Bell will be the first Southeast city to hold regularly scheduled town meetings.

Enthusiastic About Idea

Richard Vella, 62, a resident of Bell for 35 years, said he is enthusiastic about the town meetings because "you don't get anything out of (regular City Council meetings)."

"What they do most of the time doesn't make much sense," Vella said.

Mirabal agreed, saying council meetings "are supposed to be sensitive to the community. But they are so bogged down in legal demands that they become so long and boring. For most people, the town meeting is a far better format," he said, because every resident will have a chance to voice an opinion.

The town meeting idea is part of a larger effort by the City Council to improve its image, which was damaged four years ago by the convictions of two city officials--including a councilman--for conspiring to form a secret partnership with investors in the controversial Bell Poker Club.

Besides taking over the poker club to guarantee that the city isn't cheated out of revenue, the council is embarking on an ambitious redevelopment plan. Construction of a new shopping center in the heart of the city will begin soon, and the city is eyeing the abandoned, 160-acre Cheli Air Force Base near Eastern Avenue for other projects.

"When you get elected, you feel like you have a mandate," Mirabal said. "You have to go back to the voters. This is a good way to do it."

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