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Love, hate and Robert Rizzo

The former Bell city administrator has become a polarizing figure, even before he goes to trial on more than 50 charges, including misappropriating public funds.

January 23, 2011|Steve Lopez

In nearly four decades as a journalist, I've tossed a fair number of public figures onto the grill. But I don't recall a reaction as polarized as the response to my Jan. 13 skewering of former Bell city administrator Robert Rizzo.

Lots of people loved it.

"One of your best!!!" wrote reader Margaret Schwartz.

And lots of people hated it.

"Maybe you should start your own vigilante business. What a jerk. You need help as much as Rizzo does," wrote John Earl.

By mid-morning on the day it ran, Times editors asked if I would respond online to readers who were posting comments on our website in a running debate about whether the column was a fair shot or a cheap shot.

I was initially reluctant, given the nature of reader postings on the Web. I could write a column about how wonderful it is to live in Southern California, where you can have an 80-degree January day with a view of snow-capped mountains in the distance, and the website posts would say I was promoting unsubstantiated liberal lies about global warming, Obama is a Muslim and I should be deported. Online comments aren't usually on the level of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, in other words.

But I went ahead with a mini-column saying I had no regrets or apologies for tracking down and trying to talk to Rizzo at the International Surfing Museum in Huntington Beach, where he was volunteering as a parking lot attendant to satisfy a community service requirement on a drunk driving charge.

The truth is, I didn't think it was possible to be too hard on Rizzo.

The former Bell city manager is facing more than 50 felony charges of misappropriating public funds and other misdeeds in Bell, where he secured himself a salary of nearly $800,000 a year.

His response when Times reporters Jeff Gottlieb and Ruben Vives confronted him?

"If that's a number people choke on, maybe I'm in the wrong business," Rizzo said. "I could go in private business and make that money. This council has compensated me for the job I've done."

Yes, with an annual package of $1.5 million with benefits. Moreover, he was entitled to take 20 weeks of vacation and sick days a year.

No error there. Twenty weeks.

But my meager attempt to defend myself in my online posting did nothing to stop the critics. They didn't like that I pointed Rizzo out to a passerby, who then gave him a piece of his mind. And I took even more of a beating when Rizzo was relieved of his duties by the surf museum because of the stir his outing had created.

"Steve, you should go to Afghanistan and help the Taliban stone adulterers and thieves," wrote one angry reader.

"Did T.J. Simers go with you on this trip?" asked another reader, referring to our two-fisted sports columnist, who recently trashed young Clipper superstar Blake Griffin for giving lousy interviews.

It was bad enough being compared to the Taliban. But Simers?

How could I live with myself?

My editor told me to buck up and move on, saying that a good columnist needs to have the soul of a poet and the hide of a rhino, and that I lack the rhino part.

Frankly, I think the poetry thing may be in doubt as well.

After some navel gazing, I've reached some conclusions about the matter. For starters, I think it was a big, big mistake for the surfing museum to dump Rizzo. The place doesn't get a lot of visitors, and he could have been its best draw.

Lots of readers charged, however, that I had made it too personal, kicking a man who was down. And they thought I didn't need to point out that he doesn't exactly have the physique of a surfer. My colleagues had already laid Rizzo out, they said, and there was nothing I could add to it, and of course Rizzo couldn't answer my questions because his attorney had ordered him not to talk.

To be honest, I had trouble sleeping, knowing I had created so much sympathy for one of the biggest freeloaders in government history. I wondered if I should call comic Ricky Gervais, who was accused of being too mean to celebrities when he hosted the Golden Globes, and see if we could get a two-for-one discount at a rehab center for personality disorders.

On the other hand, it was reassuring to know that in a harsh world filled with incivility, many readers have their own sensors and sensibilities and felt they knew me well enough to rap my knuckles in a thoughtful way.

I appreciate that, believe me. Though not as much as the e-mails from astute readers who enjoyed the column.

That said, dozens of critics couldn't have all been wrong. Could they?

Jim Spertus, Rizzo's attorney, told me Rizzo was frustrated by our encounter, in part because he's under orders to clam up rather than defend himself. Rizzo will beat the charges against him, Spertus promised, arguing that people have a right to be angry about an $800,000 salary during tough times but that no crimes were committed.

We'll see about that, and my vow to readers is that when Rizzo goes to trial, I'll pull no punches. But in the meantime, as a goodwill gesture, should I call the surfing museum and volunteer to pull a few shifts as parking attendant?

Nahhh. You never know when some jerk might come up and ruin your day.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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