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Sic the Watchdogs on Them

September 20, 2003

Lynwood. Maywood. South Gate. Carson. Compton. The names change but the stories are distressingly similar: Public officials bury both hands in the city till while taxpaying constituents struggle to put food on rickety kitchen tables and gas in last-leg cars.

As Times staff writer Richard Marosi reported Monday, Lynwood City Council members parlayed their $9,600 annual salaries into six-figure bonanzas by making the city pay for trips to Puerto Vallarta and Rio de Janeiro, jewelry, gasoline, even satellite TV service. Outrageous, but hardly unique.

Some Compton officials and a former mayor were arrested this year on charges of using city credit cards to pay for car repairs, limousine rides, health club dues, Las Vegas trips and a visit to the dentist. Carson's mayor resigned over the summer after pleading guilty to conspiracy to extort bribes from waste haulers seeking a $60-million city contract. South Gate residents finally got wise to the corrupt cronies who ran City Hall and in January recalled the lot of them.

Certainly there are many small cities where officials spend the public's money wisely. But several factors have created a breeding ground for scoundrels in some Southeast L.A. County cities. Communities that once were middle-class bedrocks are now home to immigrants laboring long hours to stay afloat. They lack the time and often the English fluency to monitor city bureaucracies. Local newspapers that watched public agencies have folded. Undocumented residents are afraid to speak up.

South Gate's long-suffering residents finally got fed up, but ensuring clean and responsive government depends on preventing shenanigans in the first place. Two foundations, the Industrial Areas Foundation and Liberty Hill, among other groups, are making a difference, prodding residents to demand that officials clean up toxic dumps, inspect unsafe buildings and control rats. That issue-based activism spills over. Parishioners and parent groups who push for street lights and after-school activities often find themselves demanding different bus routes or action against gang violence.

More eyeballs on local leaders would help, too. TV stations that barely cover big-city budget debates ignore smaller ones unless the treasurer leaves office in handcuffs. In a region this vast, expanded cable-access programming tailored to neighborhood concerns and transmitted to specific ZIP Codes -- a technically feasible feat if funding and some help from cable operators can be found -- could make a big difference. Such micro-channels would let local residents scrutinize how their taxes were spent and encourage them to care. Residents could watch the PTA meeting or city council debates on money for playgrounds. The possibilities are tantalizing and the potential payoff -- more vigilant, involved residents -- is big.

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