The saga of Bell's rise and fall has the makings of a Greek tragedy. For the character with the fatal flaw, look no further than former City Administrator Robert Rizzo, once the town's hero. When Rizzo arrived in 1993, Bell was nearly bankrupt. After 10 years under his stewardship, the city was financially healthy, with a tidy reserve, manicured parks and a menu of social and recreational services.
Rizzo's compensation grew along with Bell's successes, but it increased alarmingly after 2004 and finally reached about $1.5 million a year. Other city leaders were showered with almost equally absurd salaries and perks, which they took pains to keep a secret. But paying for the affluence of a few insiders meant pillaging the city that Rizzo had built up — imposing phony fees on businesses, illegally raising taxes, and towing cars on pretexts and charging owners three times the usual rate to get them back, according to state reports. City Council members pulled in nearly $100,000 a year for sitting on commissions and boards that actually convened for a minute or two, or not at all. Eight Bell officials have been arrested and charged with misappropriation of public funds, including most of the existing council and, of course, Rizzo.
As the March 8 election approaches, and with it, races for all five City Council seats, the people of Bell are still trying to figure out how this came to pass. Was Rizzo an able city manager whose growing power and hubris led him to cross terrible lines? Or was it all a greedy plot from the start? Rizzo isn't telling, and the only other voices from Bell's leadership have been a Greek chorus of council members singing, "We didn't know!"
These days, the disgraced council seldom pulls together a quorum, and the city is on the verge of insolvency. Repeated audits have shown that major cuts to basic services must be made, and that the city might not have the money to retain its own Police Department.
It would be too easy to point to Bell as an exception, a majority-immigrant city of close to 40,000 people who know too little about government and who were working so hard to support their families that they paid scant attention. But there are a lot of potential Bells of one sort or another, cities where voters take democracy for granted. When was the last time any of us attended a city council meeting? A gathering of a planning board? The Bell scandal exposed statewide problems — audit firms that are supposed to keep officials honest but that rubber-stamp their worst financial shenanigans, the state retirement system that wasn't watching the store and legislators who, even after an eruption of voter outrage, voted down two bills that would finally have provided easily accessible information about public salaries and benefits.
In other words, there's a lot more to fixing what ailed Bell than just fixing Bell. But right now, the top priority is to return democracy to the city. There is a long list of City Council candidates running for open seats in the coming election, and that alone is a remarkable situation. For years it has been the habit in Bell for council members to leave office in midterm, allowing the council to appoint new members who then enjoy the benefits of incumbency.
The March ballot is a complicated one for Bell residents. There are recall measures against four of the five current council members (several of which are moot because the incumbents' terms are up or they have chosen not to run). There are 18 people running for all five seats. Some of the races are general election races for full-term seats; others are races to fill out unexpired terms.
Most of the candidates have little political or public experience. In interviews with The Times' editorial board, they voiced similar concerns and similar plans: To get rid of the capricious fees and fines that prompted many firms to flee the city, leaving what residents describe as a "ghost town" in the business district. To raise the level of public engagement by holding town halls and revamping the city's website.
Where they differ is on what to do about the Bell Police Department, which Rizzo was trying to disband when he was effectively forced out of his job. To some extent, the police cooperated with Rizzo on the excessive car towing, but when he took action against the department, they played a role in exposing his misdeeds. The city could save an estimated $4 million, enough to overcome its deficit, by contracting with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.