A recall effort launched this week in Bell has exposed a section of the city's charter that could leave residents without elected leadership.
State law allows for new candidates to be elected in conjunction with a recall election. But Bell, a working-class town of 40,000, operates under a charter that stipulates that a separate election would have to be held to fill the council vacancies.
If the effort to recall Mayor Oscar Hernandez and council members Luis Artiga, Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal — who were paid thousands for sitting on boards that never met or met only briefly — is successful, the city would be left with only one council member. Three council members are needed to have a legal meeting.
Routine city business, such as approving expenditures or signing off on development agreements, would be halted until the council vacancies are filled.
Patrick Whitnell, general counsel for the League of California Cities, said he was unaware of any other charter city in the state that has such a law on the books.
"The unusual part is having the majority of the council being recalled," said Dave Mora of the International City/County Management Assn. "That's probably the exception no one ever thought about."
The City Charter has been a source of controversy in Bell. City officials pushed the charter in 2005, telling voters it would give them more local control. Though it wasn't mentioned in election material, the charter allowed council members to exempt themselves from recently enacted state salary limits and hike their salaries to nearly $100,000 a year — making them among the highest paid part-time council members in California.
"If the recall goes through, we will diligently work to ensure that the inconsistency is reconciled," said Jamie Casso, Bell's acting city attorney.
Councilman Lorenzo Velez, who was being paid $8,000 a year and said he was unaware of his colleagues' hefty paychecks, is not a target of the recall and would become the lone council member if the recall goes through.
Velez, who is up for reelection in March, said he did not know the charter stipulation could paralyze the council. Jacobo, Hernandez and Mirabal could not be reached for comment.
Residents led by the Bell Assn. to Stop the Abuse announced Wednesday they had taken the first steps in the recall effort and would begin gathering signatures once the city approves the language in the recall petitions.
According to state law, 25% of Bell's registered voters would have to sign the petitions within 90 days. Bell has just under 10,000 registered voters, so roughly 2,500 signatures from registered Bell voters would need to be collected. An elections official would have to verify the signatures.
If the signatures are valid, the council would have 14 days to call an election in which voters would decide the fate of the council members. Bell's charter does not give a time frame for the separate election that would fill the vacancies or even who would call such an election.
A handful of local leaders are considering announcing their candidacy; most of them have run unsuccessfully in the past.
Artiga said he supports the recall and has refused to resign only because it would leave an open position.
"If I step down and the other four council members stay, they're going to just appoint someone else to my seat," Artiga said.
All four council members could be recalled as early as this fall, although what happens after that is unclear.
"It's an interesting little issue," said Fred Woocher, an attorney who specializes in California election law. "I don't think they can operate and take any effective legislative action without a quorum of council members. They're going to have to hurry up and get some new members."