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Bell finds reform is harder than it looks

The scandal-plagued city's new council was forced to extend a hiring deadline after no one applied for the city manager's job. Bad press and raucous council meetings don't help.

July 16, 2011|By Ruben Vives, Los Angeles Times
  • "We've had nothing but negative publicity since this salary scandal broke," Councilman Danny Harber said. Above, Harber upon winning his council seat in March.
"We've had nothing but negative publicity since this salary… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

When Bell's all-new five-member City Council was sworn in four months ago, the members vowed a complete overhaul of the city: New leadership. New start.

But the council is having little luck.

After a monthlong search, officials have not received a single application from a candidate to lead the city. Besides city manager, other top leadership positions also remain vacant, including police chief and planning director. For months, Bell could not find an accounting firm that was willing to audits its books until the state controller stepped in and encouraged a firm to do the work.

Timeline: Scandal in Bell

Council members have discovered that Bell's reputation is its biggest problem.

"We've had nothing but negative publicity since this salary scandal broke," Councilman Danny Harber said. "Sometimes I feel like we take one step forward and two steps back. I hope it eventually all comes together."

Finding a new city manager is a crucial step for Bell, which faces a deficit of nearly $5 million, a growing pile of legal bills from the scandal and the likelihood of major cutbacks in services. Then there is the equally difficult task of rebuilding the trust of residents who were outraged by the high pay, illegal taxation and other alleged crimes at the hands of the old city leadership.

The situation frustrates leaders and residents, who worry that Bell's stigma could stall their efforts to revive the city. Bell resident Janice Bass, 69, said it feels like nothing is getting done.

"Why don't we put an end to it and let's get moving forward," she said.

Last month, the city sent out a request for proposals from candidates through the League of California Cities, a statewide organization, and its nonprofit affiliate, the Latino Caucus. The request was also sent to the International City/County Management Assn. and more than a dozen cities throughout Los Angeles County. The candidate would replace interim City Administrator Pedro Carrillo, who has been on the job for about a year and whose contract ends next Friday. City officials said that although the job is advertised as "interim city manager," its term is open-ended and officials would consider making the position permanent.

"The request has been on the city's website too," Carrillo said. "I'd say hundreds of people have reviewed it, easily."

But the July 8 deadline for applications passed without any submissions, forcing officials to extend the deadline to July 22. So far, no one has applied.

Five people "seriously" inquired about the job, but "declined to submit applications for consideration," Carrillo said.

"The scrutiny, the amount of work and expectations are some of the issues that these five applicants have expressed to me as to why they don't want to submit their applications," Carrillo said.

One person who considered applying for the job was an employee of another government, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He said he was intrigued by the prospect of helping to fix Bell.

Instead, the candidate lost interest after watching the council in action. He said the leaders fight frequently and the jeers from the residents can be distasteful.

"It's like watching a football game, there's screaming on one way, and then they're screaming on another," he said. "It doesn't seem to be productive."

Very few residents used to attend Bell council meetings. But since the scandal, meetings are packed with people who are not shy about expressing their feelings. In most small cities like Bell, the city manager plays a key role in helping guide the part-time council through issues and implementing the policy decisions.

Bell resident Rocio Lopez said she hopes a strong city manager can help calm the meetings and aid in moving the city forward.

"It's a lot to handle," Lopez said. "I can see why certain professionals want to stay away, because of the fact that Bell could be at the brink of bankruptcy…. You can only hope that whoever takes a job has a vision not to just take the city out of its financial mess, but to make it better."

The new city manager will be confronted with a huge task. Bell is facing a potential deficit of nearly $5 million, about one-third of its budget, and will be forced to make major cutbacks. The council has put budget discussions on hold until it has a better understanding of the city's fiscal standing.

And Bell's legal woes are likely to continue as it deals with fallout from the salary scandal and other illegal taxation issues.

Kevin Duggan, West Coast regional director of the International City/County Management Assn., said Bell is hampered in its recruiting efforts by bad press and intense public scrutiny. Any successful candidate will need an excellent reputation — and experience in dealing with finances, human resources and good governance, he said.

But Duggan said he's hopeful.

"In our profession we don't shy away from challenges," Duggan said. "I'm optimistic that with our assistance in reaching out to the city manager community, we will be able to identify a pool of candidates."

In the meantime, Carrillo said, the council and city administration need to work on bringing "calm to the city."

"It's not just the applicants either, it's developers and investors who want to make positive things happen, but it can be a turn-off with the yelling and screaming," Carrillo said.

Timeline: "Corruption on steroids" in Bell

ruben.vives@latimes.com

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