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Bell scandal inspires reformist legislative proposals

California lawmakers introduce bills to combat pay and pension abuse by city officials in the wake of the Bell scandal.

January 24, 2011|By Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Sacramento — City managers convicted of felony misuse of taxpayer funds would lose public pension benefits under a legislative proposal that is among several introduced this month in response to the financial scandal in Bell.

The fresh round of Bell-inspired bills comes after lawmakers failed to pass similar measures in the final days of last year's legislative session. The current proposals may have better odds because lawmakers will have more time to vet them in committee and refine them over several months. Each of the measures seeks to change state law to prevent the kinds of pay and pension abuses seen in Bell.

Bills that have been introduced would make it harder for city council members to cash in by serving on multiple city commissions, toughen ethics training mandates and require city administrators each year to publicly disclose their salaries, car allowances, bonuses and deferred compensation payments.

Other planned measures would seek to block pension spiking.

Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) has offered a bill to outlaw a practice in Bell in which the city allegedly made money by towing the cars of sober immigrants from DUI checkpoints if they did not have proper ID.

State Sen. Tony Strickland (R-Moorpark) said his bill stripping pension benefits from felons was inspired by former Bell City Administrator Robert Rizzo, who has been charged with misusing public funds but could still receive retirement checks if convicted.

"The taxpayers shouldn't pay for a lifetime of benefits for someone who violated the public trust,'' said Strickland, who introduced SB 115 last week.

The lawmaker said he was alarmed when The Times reported last year that Rizzo's annual salary of nearly $800,000 meant he could get a state pension of $600,000. Since then, the California Public Employees Retirement System has said that a lack of documentation for some pay raises means Rizzo will receive much less, but he still could get more than $80,000.

Strickland's bill would apply to non-elected city, county and school officials who are convicted of felonies involving their public duties. It applies only to crimes committed after Jan. 1, 2012 — disqualifying them from receiving the portion of their pension contributed by taxpayers.

The state cannot legally deprive officials of the money they paid into the system themselves, so their contributions would be refunded to them without interest, Strickland said.

Two other proposals would address pension spiking issues raised in Bell. Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Silver Lake) is revising a previously introduced bill that would address concerns in Glendale and Simi Valley that those cities could have to pay higher-than-expected pension costs to Randy Adams, who was police chief in those cities before he went on to become chief in Bell. Adams' annual salary was boosted to $457,000 in Bell, qualifying him for a much larger pension, part of which his previous cities would have to pay for. The legislation would apply to future situations only.

Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) has reintroduced a measure, vetoed last year, that would prevent pension spiking through end-of-career salary increases and bonuses.

Also back is a bill by Sen. Louis Correa (D-Santa Ana) that would require city, county and school officials to annually disclose their compensation, car allowance and bonuses in a form that would be posted on the Internet.

Assemblyman Cameron Smyth (R-Santa Clarita) said he was outraged by disclosures in a criminal complaint filed against eight current and former Bell officials that some council members had received more than $100,000 in stipends since 2006 for sitting on city commissions that rarely met or met for just minutes at a time. His bill would prohibit simultaneous or back-to-back meetings of committees that include a quorum of the council.

The League of California Cities, which has supported more disclosure of city salaries, is reviewing the new bills and has not yet taken an official position, according to spokeswoman Eva Spiegel.

"After Bell, these issues are of concern to us,'' she said. "These are bills we are going to track.''

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

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