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Bell's rookie council begins charting a new course

At a marathon meeting, the council members accept the city attorney's resignation, launch the search for a new police chief, scrap a costly pension plan and signal all city expenditures will require their approval.

April 22, 2011|By Ruben Vives, Los Angeles Times
  • The newly elected Bell City Council, left to right: Mayor Ali Saleh, Nestor E. Valencia, Violeta Alvarez, Vice Mayor Danny Harber and Ana Maria Quintana.
The newly elected Bell City Council, left to right: Mayor Ali Saleh, Nestor… (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)

Bell's rookie council members began laying the groundwork for steering the city clear of bankruptcy and erasing the final fingerprints of Robert Rizzo, the former administrator accused of looting the treasury of one of Los Angeles County's poorest cities.

In a marathon meeting that began Wednesday evening and stretched until the predawn hours Thursday, the council accepted the resignation of the city attorney, ordered a search for a new police chief, scrapped a costly pension plan, rejected more than a dozen legal claims filed by the city's former leaders and signaled that the council — not an appointed administrator — would approve even the most minute of municipal expenditures.

In a town where the elected government had been virtually paralyzed by scandal, the meeting marked a burst of democracy by the newly elected City Council. The meeting ended at 3:30 a.m. with two residents left in the audience.

Interim Chief Administrator Pedro Carrillo, who was hired to guide Bell after Rizzo, Rizzo's chief assistant and the police chief were forced out of City Hall, commended the council for sharing responsibility for the city's finances.

"It's refreshing," Carrillo said. "It's a luxury I did not have before."

Carrillo warned earlier this year that the city was in deep financial trouble and could face a deficit as high as $4.5 million by the end of the fiscal year. Carrillo outlined several drastic options, such as cutting municipal services or even disbanding the Police Department.

Former council members, most of whom face criminal charges of public corruption, had been repeatedly unable to meet and had left the unfinished business of trimming the budget to the newly elected council.

Although the council took no drastic steps at the meeting, it did approve a new payment procedure in which it will review all bill payments before they are paid.

"It's straightforward," Carrillo said. "This slows down the process and allows the council to review the payments before they are sent out."

In the past, Rizzo approved most payments, typically without the council's OK.

"This makes everything more transparent and that's what you want," Councilman Danny Harber told the crowd.

The council also terminated its supplemental retirement plan that was paid entirely by Bell tax funds that had been illegally raised by the city. The state controller ordered the city last August to repay $2.9 million that had been illegally collected from local taxpayers since 2007.

The pension plan had been costing the city up to $650,000 a year.

The council also accepted the resignation of interim City Atty. James Casso. Like Carrillo and other City Hall figures, Casso had trouble shaking the impression that he was linked to the Rizzo era. Several incoming council members had pledged to rid City Hall of all ranking administrators who had ties to Rizzo.

By midnight, the council went into closed session. When it emerged three hours later, the once-jammed council chambers had shrunk to two people.

One of them, Jorge Florez, 25, said he wanted to see the council tackle the city's municipal affairs.

"It's very encouraging to see them go all the way through the night," he said.

ruben.vives@latimes.com

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