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CRISIS IN BELL

How Bell hit bottom

Robert Rizzo seemed right for the town -- until he became an 'unaccountable czar.'

December 28, 2010|By Christopher Goffard | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • Outside City Hall, Bell residents display a banner celebrating the arrest of City Administrator Robert Rizzo.
Outside City Hall, Bell residents display a banner celebrating the arrest… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

The new boss kept his office spartan and impersonal, the walls stripped of photos, the desk conveying no hint of his life beyond the red-brick walls of City Hall.

It was 1993, a bleak, recession-bit year, and Robert Rizzo arrived in Bell trailing the vague whiff of scandal. His last city administrator job, in the high desert city of Hesperia, had ended badly, with accusations that he'd steered city improvement funds toward salaries.

But the Bell officials who hired him did not dig deeply into his past. They needed someone fast, and Rizzo, then 39, came cheap. His starting salary was $78,000, which was $7,000 less than his predecessor had made.

FULL COVERAGE: High salaries stir outrageĀ in Bell

"He was willing to work for the least amount of money," said then-Councilman Rolf Janssen. "That was what attracted me and several other council members."

Now Rizzo and seven other Bell leaders past and present are charged with looting more than $5.5 million from one of the county's poorest municipalities. It is a hydra-headed scandal that has spawned seven federal, state and county investigations and transformed a forgotten suburb into a synonym for rogue governance. It has resonated as a morality tale in which Rizzo is cast as a greed-crazed, cigar-chomping puppet master who cheated his way to an $800,000 salary and a 10-acre horse ranch.

How Rizzo evolved from an obscure civil servant into what a prosecutor called an "unelected and unaccountable czar" may never emerge in granular focus. But the broad contours are clear. Ambition and opportunity aligned in a place that allowed him to be both ever-present and invisible.

The normal checks and balances, from a robust local press to engaged civic groups, had largely vanished before or during Rizzo's long reign as city administrator. And the grim climate in which he arrived made him seem, for a time, like the man Bell needed.

Had he retired six or seven years ago, he might have been remembered as a reclusive technocrat who saved the city from financial ruin and made it purr. People talked about how pretty the parks were, how efficiently trash was removed, how swiftly gang graffiti was painted over.

Just last year, a police captain named Anthony Miranda ordered T-shirts for Neighborhood Watch participants imprinted with a prideful description of the 21/2-square-mile city: La perla del sureste.

The pearl of the southeast.

"We believed it," he said. "Compared to our neighbors, Bell was the place to be."

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In the immense geographic chasm between downtown Los Angeles and Orange County, Bell is one of those places the tour books skip entirely -- the freeway-culture equivalent of flyover country, a smudge of urban gray.

Rizzo's touches are everywhere: a big skateboard park, a miniature golf course, pristine playing fields. In a place both cramped and crime-wary, the parks are stringently fenced, squeezed between tenements or beside busy streets. At an open-air gym along Gage Avenue, people breathe the exhaust of passing traffic as they pant atop stationary bikes.

Like other cities in southeastern L.A. County, Bell flourished as a white middle-class enclave during the Cold War manufacturing boom. There was a local newspaper, the Industrial Post, and a host of active social service groups: Kiwanis and Rotary clubs, Masonic and Moose lodges.

The decay of the region's industrial spine in the 1970s and '80s -- the closure of tire, auto and steel plants -- left thousands without the well-paying jobs that built the area. This coincided with a massive influx of Latinos, many of them undocumented.

The service groups withered. Voter participation became "abysmal," said John Bramble, who was city administrator in 1990, a year when 669 votes -- in a city of 34,000 -- could win a City Council seat. Only five or six people showed up for neighborhood meetings. Bramble said he would meet with a handful of World War II-generation seniors at a burger place to talk about city business, but age and illness thinned their numbers.

"Things started to deteriorate," Bramble said.

By 1993, Bell's fortunes were at a low ebb. The California Bell Club -- once the state's largest poker parlor and the source of $2 million in annual revenue for the city -- had closed. At City Hall, council members could feel the springs under their patched leather seats.

The Industrial Post, in existence since 1924, went under. Jay Price, the beloved 78-year-old mayor, an institutional fixture who had joined the council in the 1950s, died of heart failure. And Bramble announced that he was leaving for a job in Colorado.

Interviews with potential replacements began immediately, though the city didn't have the money for an exhaustive search.

Bramble recalled that interest in the city administrator's position was scant.

"I don't think people were willing to take a job where you were constantly cutting. That was the story of my last three years in Bell," he said. "My guess is they were happy to have anybody."

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