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Bell council defiantly defends outgoing officials' high salaries

Resignations of the city manager, assistant city manager and police chief are accepted. Financial details of the departures have not been released.

July 24, 2010|By Ruben Vives, Jeff Gottlieb and Corina Knoll, Los Angeles Times

In his letter, released after the meeting ended, Hernandez did not address why the council accept Rizzo's resignation. But he did address the public anger: "We recognize that today's economic climate and the financial hardships so many families are suffering put our past compensation decisions in a new light. To the residents of Bell, we apologize."

But he steadfastly defended Rizzo.

"A full, fair reporting of the facts would also have demonstrated that Rizzo delivered Bell from a $20-million shortfall to 15 years of balanced budgets. In addition, the city transformed from one of struggling to maintain its day-to-day operations to a city that is a model for financial prudence and effective service delivery," Hernandez wrote.

"Rizzo leaves Bell in a far better position than he found it 17 years ago."

It remains unclear how much the public will ultimately learn about the departures of Rizzo and the two others.

The two sources, who spoke to The Times on the condition that they not be named, said the separation agreements with the officials included a clause preventing all parties from talking about the departures or discussing details of the agreement.

Rizzo had a three-year contract with the city that was automatically renewed every year. After stepping down, he would be eligible for a pension of more than $600,000, according to a Times estimate that was reviewed by state pension officials.

Documents obtained by The Times show that Rizzo had a similar agreement when he stepped down as city manager of the San Bernardino County community of Hesperia in the early 1990s. Rizzo arrived in Bell after serving as the first city manager in Hesperia.

He was earning $95,000 when he left the High Desert city. By 1992, he had become a controversial figure there, with press accounts at the time saying some council members wanted to replace him.

In the end, Rizzo agreed to step down with an agreement that the city would pay him more than $108,000 over nine months for consulting services after his departure. Hesperia city officials also agreed not to speak about Rizzo's tenure or reveal details about his resignation. The document was prepared by the city attorney's office and signed by the mayor.

It's unclear whether Rizzo's record in Hesperia was known by Bell officials who hired him in 1993.

At least one open-government expert said that although such "non-disparagement clauses" are common, they should not prevent the city from providing financial or other details about the resignations, which should be a public record.

"In many cases there is at least a mutual interest to have things just shut down with no further comment or disclosure. In many cases, neither side's hands are completely clean," said Terry Francke, general counsel of the nonprofit Californians Aware and an open-government advocate. "That's the cost of these kinds of reciprocal agreements: While it may give legitimate privacy protections to the outgoing employee, it also buys their silence about things the public might need to know about."

Times staff writer Victoria Kim contributed to this report.

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