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Bell's search for redemption

What Bell is finding out now is that it takes a lot more than rancor and attendance at council meetings to rebuild a ravaged city.

August 01, 2011

It took outrage and a new era of civic involvement among a previously apathetic electorate to throw out the greedy leaders of Bell who enriched themselves while bleeding the town of money. What Bell is finding out now is that it takes a lot more than rancor and attendance at council meetings to rebuild a ravaged city.

Former City Administrator Robert Rizzo, who quietly collected close to $1.5 million a year in pay and other compensation, faces numerous criminal corruption charges, as do most of the former City Council members, whose incomes reached about $100,000 a year through hefty payments for serving on commissions that met for a minute or two.

But even with Rizzo gone and an entirely new council in place, the level of distrust in Bell remains high. In good part, that's because the interim city administrator, Pedro Carrillo, was hired by the reviled former council members. When Carrillo produced a financial plan that called for painful cuts to balance the city's estimated $4-million deficit, the council decided to let him go, even though it has had no luck so far finding anyone to replace him. The one potential candidate who emerged quickly withdrew after observing the obstreperous council meetings, with members of the audience yelling at their newly elected leaders and council members yelling at one another. In the meantime, Mayor Ali Saleh, a clothing businessman who is unqualified to act as city administrator, is in charge, though he has been wise enough to say he wants to hand over the reins to professionals as quickly as possible.

Fortunately for Bell, there are 21st century knights riding to the rescue, though in this case they're clad in conservative gray suits rather than shining armor. The International City/County Management Assn., having noticed that Bell couldn't get anyone to work for it, took on the task of finding a city administrator with top credentials — Ken Hampian, former city manager of San Luis Obispo, who will take no salary — to restore calm for a month. It's also putting together a group of volunteer experts to comb the city's finances and operations and prepare a report with recommendations. In the meantime, the organization hopes to recruit and vet candidates for a somewhat longer-term interim city administrator— maybe six months. And by then, it's hoped, the city will have sorted itself out enough to attract a permanent city administrator.

It's similar to the long process of rehabilitation for a severely injured patient. Bell was badly damaged by the leaders its residents trusted, and those injuries — including the gaping wound of the city's budget deficit — will take more healing than March's recall election could have brought about.

The altruistic experts who will help out temporarily weren't part of Bell's past. As a result, their suggestions will probably be trusted more than Carrillo's. But although they bring a clean slate to the city, they do not bring an extra $4 million to plug the deficit. The council and residents should be prepared for steep cuts in municipal services; hearing the bad news from a trusted source won't make it much easier to accept.

Among other things, the city must be open to the possibility of contracting with the Sheriff's Department for law enforcement. Though residents would understandably prefer to retain a local force, disbanding the Police Department would wipe out the bulk of the deficit and provide continued savings.

Another issue that almost certainly will plague the city is the cost of hiring a new permanent city administrator. Bell, fairly or not, has become synonymous with municipal scandal, and its financial situation is perilous. Candidates know that if they take the job, their every action will be scrutinized, which is a heartening sign of how much more aware and engaged the residents are. And though it's true that top leaders don't come cheap, the city will be hypersensitive about paying a big salary to its next administrative leader. Bell should examine the possibility of sharing a city manager with a neighboring city, if that's what it takes to find the right person. The irony is that Rizzo was, for a time, an excellent city administrator who created a parks system that was the pride of Bell, until he apparently took more interest in helping himself than the city he was supposed to serve.

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