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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

Rizzo quickly developed a reputation as a micromanager who meant to save the cash-strapped city by pinching every penny. He laid off workers and contracted out services. He gave an expensive-to-maintain bridge to the neighboring city of Vernon. He installed cheaper, brighter streetlights.

At the Police Department, squad cars racked up 200,000 miles instead of being replaced after 100,000. New cars received drab gray door emblems instead of multi-colored ones.

Janssen, the former councilman, said Rizzo put the city on stable financial footing and took a keen interest in its image. He made sure plenty of hot dogs were available at city events and insisted that every child, not just the stars, receive a trophy in the soccer and baseball leagues.

He lived near the ocean in Huntington Beach, 30 miles from the city he ran, and seemed to shrink from personal attention, reluctant to mix even as president of the Chamber of Commerce. In the fraternity of local city managers, he was rarely seen.

Diminutive and rotund, Rizzo was self-conscious about his appearance. Behind his back, people called him the Penguin, a reference to the "Batman" villain. He liked to mention his bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley and said that everything he'd achieved was the result of dogged effort.

Under Rizzo, people began saying the city looked better than it had in years. Marial Sanders, a real estate agent and property manager in Bell, said prospective homebuyers sometimes told her they were torn between Bell and nearby Downey, a much bigger city. "I thought, 'Wow, Bell has come so far, we're being compared to Downey.' "

Only rarely did Rizzo draw attention to himself, as on one election night at City Hall. People who were there recall that he had too much to drink. Peter Werrlein, a former mayor who had served prison time for holding a hidden interest in the poker club, said he confronted him.

"You're drunker than a hoot owl," Werrlein recalled telling Rizzo. "You're going home."

When Rizzo tried to argue, Werrlein said, he got the city administrator's attention by striking him across the face with a half-open hand. "I whacked him and said, 'Let's go.' I think he knew I'd reached the end of my patience."

To some, the plainness of Rizzo's office spoke to his willingness to make sacrifices along with the city.

When Police Chief Michael Trevis asked why he didn't hang photos, however, he said he got a different explanation. "When you put things up, you're telling people you're comfortable," Trevis recalled Rizzo saying. "I want people to know I can leave at a moment's notice."

In his stark office, the sole reflection of his personality was a little television on which he followed the stock market. "It was always on," Trevis said. "That's Bob. We were not used to that, but we were broke, we were busted, and it took a numbers guy."

Once, he said, Rizzo invited him to look at budgetary pie charts. They showed that although the Police Department swallowed more than half the city budget, it generated less than 10% of the revenue.

"He said, 'You guys are costing me this and you're only bringing in that? You're not holding your own,' " Trevis said. He said Rizzo encouraged officers to write more tickets and impound cars, and he monitored which cops were "earning their way." He said Rizzo justified the tactic with a veiled threat: "Hey, if we don't do this, we might not have a Police Department.' "

Trevis said he believed revenue-oriented policing was unethical, and he waged "passive resistance" against it. He said the climate of constant layoffs lent camouflage to Rizzo's steady accumulation of power.

"It started to be anyone who disagreed with him, they were not around much longer," Trevis said. "Bob is of the belief that people are either assets or liabilities, and if you are a liability, he will find a way to jettison you."

Trevis said Rizzo found grounds to get rid of him in 2002: He had violated his contract by taking outside security work without permission. "He found out and he twisted me," Trevis said. "As one of the guys told me, 'When we saw he could get to you, he could get to any of us.' "

Bell Police Sgt. Art Jimenez, a 12-year veteran of the department, described Trevis as "the last chief to say no to Rizzo."

The chief's ouster was followed by a deeper power shift in 2003, as council veterans Janssen and George Bass -- pillars of the old guard -- left office. In their place came two of Rizzo's future co-defendants, George Mirabal, who ran a mortuary, and Oscar Hernandez, owner of a corner grocery.

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