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Bell scandal may spur a civic shift

In nearby cities, residents rose up to oust corrupt officials with mixed results.

July 22, 2010|Hector Becerra

They flooded Bell City Hall with requests for public records and packed a council meeting with an overflow crowd.

They collected signatures demanding an audit of city officials' salaries and vowed to boot their handsomely paid politicians out of office. They even created a website and posted documents that the city refused to put on its official site.

In the week since residents in this working-class suburb discovered that their city manager makes nearly $800,000 a year, Bell has experienced a sudden jolt of civic engagement. It's an anger-fueled form of participatory democracy that's relatively new for an immigrant-heavy town of about 40,000 not known for high voter turnout.

But the sudden burst of outrage follows a pattern all too familiar in southeast Los Angeles County, where municipal corruption has been a recurring problem in part because few people were paying attention to how local government operated.

The question in Bell is what happens next: Is the boom in citizen participation going to be short-lived? Or will it create a more engaged political culture that endures?

Neighboring towns show both the promise and the potential setbacks.

Residents rose up in South Gate seven years ago, pushing out city leaders who were eventually charged with plundering the city treasury. Residents and activists have stayed involved at South Gate City Hall, and many agree that has made the government more accountable and transparent. The Los Angeles County district attorney's office said it has not received a complaint about South Gate government since then.

But those who helped bring about the change said it required residents to think differently about their role in city government.

South Gate, like many southeast L.A. County cities, has large immigrant populations from Mexico and Central America. Many work long hours, don't speak English and have a distrust of government carried over from their homelands.

"What happened was a civic movement, not a campaign," and Hector De La Torre, a South Gate reformer who is now a state assemblyman. "Whether they were Latino immigrants or third-generation Latinos, or older white residents, or blacks or Asians, it brought the community together."

Farther south, in Lynwood, weeding out problems at City Hall has proved more difficult. The city has been rocked by several corruption scandals in the last decade. In the early 2000s, Mayor Paul Richards and other council members were accused and later convicted of steering city contracts to a front corporation he secretly owned.

In 2007, five Lynwood City Council members and former members -- including some billed as "reformers" -- were indicted for using hundreds of thousands of dollars in public funds to illegally boost their salaries, pay for personal expenses and even hire an exotic dancer at a "gentleman's club."

Residents finally rebelled after the council proposed building an NFL stadium in the city, prompting a recall election that swept out four of the five council members.

Although prosecutors have brought charges against dozens of southeast L.A. County officials over the last two decades, they say it's public participation that is the key to fixing many of these governments.

"We deal with the crime. What people consider corruption may not be a crime," said David Demerjian, head of the district attorney's Public Integrity Division. "Any dysfunction within the government has to be handled by you. The residents have a lot of power."

For many in southeast L.A. County, South Gate's history offers the best example of what is possible when residents get involved in civic affairs.

South Gate had endured several years of alleged malfeasance. It got worse in 2000, when a politician named Albert Robles engineered a recall that won him a majority of allies on the City Council.

Robles unleashed a reign of governance so flamboyant in its nasty badness that "South Gate" became shorthand for corruption and politicians gone wild.

Robles and his allies awarded themselves hefty raises, retaliated against critics and hired a gaggle of expensive lawyers -- which almost caused the city to buckle financially. The city raffled off a house at taxpayers' expense. Elections were rife with smear campaigns, including one in which an opponent of Robles was falsely accused of being a child molester.

"We were talking about a dictatorship. That's exactly what it was," said Henry Gonzalez, 75, a longtime South Gate councilman and critic of Robles who was shot by an unknown gunman outside his home in 1999.

Eventually residents, including the city's large immigrant population, joined together and recalled Robles from office in 2003. The first council meeting after his ouster turned into an impromptu celebration of democracy, with hundreds of residents joining officials from around the region in a show of support for the new officials.

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