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Bell withholds public records

The city has failed to respond to most requests by The Times, community activists and even a sitting councilman for public information such as the salaries of its new administrators.

August 03, 2010|By Ruben Vives and Hector Becerra, Los Angeles Times

Despite vowing greater transparency in the wake of a salary scandal, the city of Bell is refusing to turn over public records to The Times, community activists and even a sitting councilman.

"They continue to keep us in the dark," said Councilman Lorenzo Velez, who has been critical of the high salaries paid to top Bell administrators and other City Council members. "The problem is a continuation of so many years of doing whatever they wanted in City Hall."

The Times and others have requested records involving elections, budgets, city financing and salaries that typically are available for viewing at city halls — and in some cases can be found online.

While the city has filled some of The Times' public records requests, it has not responded to the vast majority within the time limit set by the state Public Records Act, nor have city officials given an explanation for their denials as required by the law. The requests include such basic information as the salaries of Interim City Manager Pedro Carrillo and Finance Director Lourdes Garcia.

According to state law, public records have to be made available for viewing.

Karl Olson, an attorney who specializes in public records litigation, said requests for administrators' salaries shouldn't require a formal request and should only take minutes to get.

"It's not like it will take them a bunch of time to figure out how much they make," Olson said. "Most people know how much they make. It seems what we have in Bell is some folks who paid themselves outrageous salaries, and they're mad they got caught."

Bell's lawyers have not responded to The Times' attorney, and the newspaper on Monday was preparing to file a Public Records Act lawsuit to ask a judge to compel the city to disclose the public records.

City Clerk Rebecca Valdez previously has said that Bell's priority is to meet a deadline for records set by the state attorney general's office.

"For them to essentially say we're being investigated for breaking the law, and so we don't have time to give you the records, that seems outrageous to me," said Olson, who won a landmark case involving public records related to police and other government employees' salaries before the California Supreme Court three years ago.

Bell, a city of about 37,000 residents in southeastern Los Angeles County, has been roiled by protests since top administrators' salaries were made public last month, prompting the resignations of City Manager Robert Rizzo, who made nearly $800,000 a year, and two other highly paid officials.

After the resignations, Mayor Oscar Hernandez released a letter to residents vowing greater openness: "In the coming days, weeks and months, we will solicit feedback from community members and institute new reforms to ensure that the city of Bell continues providing top-quality public services and protects our families, local businesses and taxpayers."

Not everyone sees it that way.

Dale Walker, a member of the Bell Assn. To Stop the Abuse, said his group has waited about three weeks for records, including salaries for council members, top administrators and payments to contractors. Christina Garcia, a leader of the group, said she thinks the city is "gambling on the idea that we don't have the means to sue them."

Reached by phone, the city clerk said she had no comment.

On Monday, City Atty. Ed Lee released a statement announcing that he was leaving the firm of Best Best & Krieger to focus on assisting the city of Bell. The firm also announced that it was no longer representing the city. Last week, the Downey City Council voted to terminate its contract with Lee over the Bell salary scandal.

"I am confident that my reputation will be restored in time, as events unfold," Lee said in a statement. He did not return a phone call or e-mail from The Times seeking comment.

ruben.vives@latimes.com

hector.becerra@latimes.com

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