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No-shows force Bell to cancel meeting

Only one council member is present. Residents are still allowed to comment.

October 05, 2010|Hector Becerra, Jeff Gottlieb and Ruben Vives, Los Angeles Times

Scandal-plagued Bell was thrown into further turmoil Monday night when a City Council meeting was abruptly canceled, raising questions about how the government would function as a corruption case continues to rock the small community.

The council had been scheduled to meet for the first time since criminal charges were filed last month against eight current and former city officials. But with the resignation earlier Monday of one councilman and the failure of another to make bail and get out of jail, only three council members were potentially available for the meeting.

Then, just as the meeting was to begin, officials announced that Mayor Oscar Hernandez and Councilwoman Teresa Jacobo had called in sick.

The meeting had been moved to the community center to make room for the more than 100 residents who showed up. But Lorenzo Velez, the only council member not charged with a crime, sat alone at the dais.

"Due to a lack of a quorum," Velez announced, "we won't be able to have our regular meeting."

Residents were allowed to make comments even though there was no official meeting. They quickly focused their anger on Interim City Administrator Pedro Carrillo as the gathering grew increasingly loud and accusatory.

"You are full of empty promises," said Willie Aguilar, 46. "You will have your day, Carrillo. I'm tired of your lies."

"Come on, Carrillo! Or should I say Rizzo?" screamed another resident, referring to former City Administrator Robert Rizzo, who has been unable to make $2-million bail because prosecutors contend that some of the assets he is offering as collateral are tainted.

"Rizzo Junior!" another resident yelled at Carrillo.

The city officials who were in the room barely replied — fearing that they would violate the state's public meeting laws by speaking at the unofficial gathering.

"They cannot interact with the public. It's hard not to respond because there's all these questions and emotions. But they just can't," said Assemblyman Hector De La Torre (D-South Gate), who watched the scene unfold.

He questioned whether the city would be able to function in the weeks ahead after the old government collapsed without a new one to replace it.

If the missing council members' intention is to not show up at meetings, De La Torre said, they should step aside. Even if they do step down, it could take months to replace them, he said.

Hours before the meeting, Councilman Luis Artiga, 49, announced his resignation, effective immediately, at a news conference at the Sherman Oaks office of attorney George Mgdesyan.

"I believe it's in the best interest of the residents of Bell, my family and the church because of the ongoing criminal case and tonight's meeting," Artiga said.

Artiga, who is pastor of Bell Community Church, was appointed to the council in 2008 to fill the unexpired term of George Cole, who retired after 24 years. He was elected the following year.

He had talked of leaving the council several times since the Bell salary scandal broke out. He composed a resignation statement to read at the last council meeting but changed his mind.

In a tearful interview the day before he was arrested, Artiga said he had trusted former City Administrator Robert Rizzo too much. "I failed," he said. "I should have asked more questions. I should have investigated more. I let the community down, and I ask for a humble forgiveness."

Artiga told The Times he felt Rizzo took advantage of his dire financial condition, ensnaring him with the nearly $100,000 annual council salary and a $20,000 loan Rizzo arranged from city funds.

"I thought God had answered my prayers," he said, "but it was a trap from the devil."

Authorities now contend the loan was illegal.

At his news conference, Artiga said he had served his community with "pride and honor without knowing what was going on. When the case plays out, people will see my level of involvement was not that great."

He said he plans to continue to live in Bell "if that's what God wants" and will continue to serve as pastor of his church. But his attorney acknowledged that many parishioners want him to step down.

Carrillo and Interim City Atty. Jamie Casso said the council has 30 days to appoint a replacement for Artiga or hold a special election.

Artiga was among eight current and former Bell leaders arrested two weeks ago on corruption charges. Among the charges against him and others are that they were paid for attending meetings of city agencies that either didn't take place or lasted only a few minutes.

Artiga, council members Jacobo and Hernandez, former Councilmen George Cole and Victor Bello and former Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia were released from jail after posting bond. Councilman George Mirabal has been unable to post bail. Mgdesyan said the Los Angeles County district attorney's office had not offered Artiga a plea bargain.

In addition to the criminal charges, state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown has filed a lawsuit accusing Bell leaders of plotting to enrich themselves and hide their lucrative compensation. Artiga was not named in that suit and has told The Times he is cooperating with authorities.

Before resigning, he spoke in support of a recall not just of his colleagues but of himself.

Hernandez's attorney, Stanley Friedman, said Monday the mayor has no intention of resigning. "He believes he has done nothing wrong," Friedman said.

Jacobo hung up Monday when a reporter called her cellphone. Mirabal's attorney could not be reached for comment.

Times staff writers Catherine Saillant and Richard Winton contributed to this report.

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