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Bell's new City Council gets down to business

The new Bell leaders move to require most city bill payments to be approved by the council. Also on the agenda: a proposal to end a plan that would boost the pensions of former officials.

April 21, 2011|By Ruben Vives and Abby Sewell, Los Angeles Times
  • "We're taking the power away from the city administrator, which is a good thing," said Councilwoman Ana Maria Quintana.
"We're taking the power away from the city administrator, which… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)

With Bell facing an increasingly desperate future, the all-new City Council has begun to grapple with measures to ease the city's financial problems and increase accountability.

The new council began by voting Wednesday to change the city's procedure for paying bills. With the exception of utility payments, the council will now need to review and approve all bills before payment can be made.

The move, which was intended to shift control from Interim City Administrator Pedro Carrillo to the council, drew cheers from the crowd.

"We're taking the power away from the city administrator, which is a good thing," Councilwoman Ana Maria Quintana said.

Longtime resident Coco Ceja said she was happy that the council approved the resolution that would prevent Carrillo from paying bills without council approval.

"What's the rush?" Ceja said. "The whole idea is that the [council] should discuss every item. We gotta watch every single dollar."

The city has been rocked by scandal since the high salaries of former City Administrator Robert Rizzo and other city leaders were revealed by The Times last summer. City business has at times ground to a near-halt as the former council members — most of them charged with public corruption — failed to meet and address the town's mounting fiscal crisis.

Wednesday's special meeting marked the second time the new council has met, but it was the first time members got down to the business of cutting expenses, cleaning house and approving routine city business that has languished.

The council had been slated to take its first vote on a proposal to terminate a supplemental retirement plan that could fatten the pensions of Bell's former leaders.

But the panel instead turned to the bill-payment question first after residents raised concerns during the more than hourlong public comment session about payments the city has made since November, including a $19,000 fuel expenditure and $11,000 for vehicle maintenance.

The city's supplemental retirement plan is costing the city up to $650,000 a year, funded mostly by a tax that the state controller's office has deemed illegal. The fund, which had been administered by Rizzo, allowed the former administrator, council members and other city employees, excluding police officers, to get around the state's retirement limit. Employees who worked for Bell for 25 years and retired at age 55 could get 90% of their salary — far more than most public employees who retire at 60.

Over the last seven years, the former council approved increases in retirement pay for at least 41 officials, which potentially raised pensions about 85%. The increases meant that Rizzo could receive a combined state and city pension of perhaps $1 million a year, according to estimates by The Times, and former Assistant City Administrator Angela Spaccia could receive $375,000.

In 2007, the council increased the city's "retirement tax" rate to cover rising pension costs. But last August, the state controller said the tax had been increased illegally and ordered Bell to refund about $2.9 million and roll back the tax.

All city retirement packages as of Aug. 1, 2010, would be terminated under Wednesday's proposed action. The measure, however, would not apply to the city's contract for retirement benefits with the California Public Employees Retirement System. The council will also consider adopting a resolution to adjust employee-paid member contributions for CalPERS.

Among the list of items on Wednesday's agenda was the awarding of construction contracts and rejecting a series of claims by former Police Chief Randy Adams, Rizzo, Spaccia, former council members and several others.

The council was still in session, tackling a long agenda, late into the night.

ruben.vives@latimes.com

abby.sewell@latimes.com

Times staff writer Jeff Gottlieb contributed to this report.

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