It was the first sign of empowerment in the small working-class, mostly immigrant community.
The group of militant citizens seemingly materialized from the streets and modest neighborhoods after it was revealed that administrators and council members in Bell were drawing enormous salaries. Its members appeared to have a united front and a rousing mantra: time to take back our city.
But as the stakes have increased, the Bell Assn. to Stop the Abuse is being second-guessed by residents who believe the grass-roots coalition has slowly been taken over by aspiring politicians and professional insiders.
The organization is being financed in part by the city's police union; two well-traveled political consultants have been brought in for guidance; several former council candidates have become vocal leaders; and a group that was forged on a belief in financial transparency has been less than forthcoming about its own finances.
BASTA, which means "enough" in Spanish, is trying to recall all but one of the city's five council members, an effort that, if successful, would result in a new election. There's suspicion that some group members are already in campaign mode and, for the first time, there are signs of division.
"They brought the insiders in," said Annette Robles, 51, who has lived in Bell for three decades and is wary of BASTA's motives. "I don't feel like they're doing anything for the people."
Among the group's founding members are Ali Saleh, who lost in last year's Bell City Council election, and Cristina Garcia, a resident of nearby Bell Gardens, where she ran unsuccessfully for council. Both have said they want to help the city move past the turmoil and emerge as a model of democracy and fiscal restraint.
"This is a big opportunity for the whole Southeast side," said Garcia, who taught statistics at USC and is a consultant for an ethnic marketing research firm.
Known around the Southeast cities as an advocate for financial transparency, Garcia, 33, was sought out earlier this year by the Bell Police Officers Assn. At the time, officers were alarmed by a proposal that would have dismantled Bell's Police Department. Pushed by former police chief Randy Adams and City Administrator Robert Rizzo, the plan called for the formation of a regional police force that would patrol several Southeast cities. The cops in Bell would have had to reapply for their jobs.
Garcia recommended that the police association hire Leo Briones, a political consultant who had assisted on her council campaign. And when the salary scandal exploded, Briones encouraged the association to partner with newly formed BASTA.
"It was sort of a natural fit," Briones said. "They're pretty concerned that they maintain good relations with the community because in the long run, that's the way those officers like to police in the city of Bell — they like to know the people."
Some, however, are leery of the alliance.
"When things were good, they were as quiet as everybody else in Bell City Hall," said Democratic Assemblyman Hector De La Torre, a former South Gate councilman who has championed reform in Southeast L.A. County. "Now you have a political consultant and you've got an out-of-city activist as your leaders. That doesn't smack as grass-roots to me. Who are all these people and who invited them?"
As summer wore on in Bell, the tough questions once put to city officials were redirected to the very group pushing for reform.
At a recent BASTA meeting, community members called for an investigation of the six-figure salaries sprinkled throughout Bell's Police Department and expressed resentment of what they believe was the department's history of unfair towing practices. Some said they were hesitant to team up with any city employees, even the police.
Briones was grilled about his credentials.
The ex-husband of former senator and assemblywoman Martha Escutia for whom a school in Bell is named, Briones once worked as an aide to Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon, leaving in 1994 shortly after complaints that he verbally abused constituents.
Escutia was later fined for failing to disclose at least $340,000 in payments clients made to her husband's communications firm, Centaur North.
Briones has worked on dozens of campaigns, including Los Angeles City Councilman Tony Cardenas' run for state Assembly. In 2005, Centaur North worked on a project with the Steelworkers Old Timers Foundation, which until recently was run by former Bell Mayor George Cole. The foundation is under fire for failing to disclose government contracts, and Cole is among those being sued by California Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown on allegations that they conspired to enrich themselves and conceal their salaries.
Together, Centaur North and the Old Timers Foundation submitted a proposal for a $2-million water education project. According to Briones, no money was exchanged between his firm and the foundation because they were not awarded the contract.