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Interim city administrator leaves Bell

With tough budget decisions looming, the mayor hopes to find a replacement soon.

July 26, 2011|By Jeff Gottlieb, Los Angeles Times
  • Pedro Carrillo is out as acting administrator in Bell.
Pedro Carrillo is out as acting administrator in Bell. (Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles…)

Bell's already uncertain future has taken another sharp turn as its interim city administrator left office without a replacement and its freshman mayor took charge of day-to-day affairs Monday.

The city decided to part ways with Pedro Carrillo as he proposed a tough new set of budget cuts aimed at holding off insolvency, including leaving executive positions unfilled, eliminating the three highest-ranking police officers in the city and requiring employees to pay for half of their retirement.

He also warned of dire problems with the city's mounting bond debt, saying the property tax in the scandal-battered town is not high enough to make payments on even $35 million worth of the bonds. And, he said, the city had been using the bond proceeds themselves to pay principal and interest, a practice he said may be legally questionable.

Mayor Ali Saleh, a clothing store owner who took office in April along with four other political newcomers, said he didn't want the responsibility of running the city and hoped his colleagues would appoint an interim administrator by week's end.

The working-class city has been fighting to stabilize itself since the arrest last year of eight current and former municipal leaders in a massive public corruption case. In its wake, city officials rolled back taxes and shouldered enormous legal bills as Bell's problems deepened. The city now has an estimated deficit of more than $4 million.

The contract for Carrillo, interim chief administrative officer for the last year, expired Friday. Carrillo had sent Saleh a letter last month saying that he was not interested in the job permanently but offering to stay on to help the city find a replacement.

But the council at a special meeting Friday night chose to walk away from the offer, even though it left the city in a precarious position and put the day-to-day municipal affairs in the hands of the mayor.

Despite Carrillo's detailed budget plan, Saleh said, the council probably would reject it and start over. The Times reported earlier this month that Bell had not received any applications for its interim city manager position. Since then, the city has been working with professional government management groups to find applicants and now has received more than 30 applications.

"I have spoken with the mayor, and he is as anxious as anyone to bring in a professional city manager as quickly as possible," said Kevin Duggan, West Coast director of the International City/County Management Assn. "I know he is hopeful, and we are hopeful."

Duggan said the plan is to hire someone quickly and ask them to steady the town for about a month and then recruit another interim city administrator. The plan, he said, would be to identity a full-time leader about six months after that. Duggan also said his group is seeking volunteers, perhaps retired city managers, to provide Bell free advice on its financial situation.

Carrillo ran Bell during its most tumultuous days, as the city lurched from crisis to crisis and investigation to investigation after the 17-year reign of Robert Rizzo, who faces corruption charges. For several months, not enough council members would show up to hold a meeting, leaving many decisions to Carrillo.

Carrillo had been viewed with suspicion by many in Bell since he was appointed interim chief administrative officer by a discredited council, four of whose members also face criminal charges.

One of his biggest opponents was BASTA, the influential activist group that led the recall of council members. Three of its members quit the group to run for office and were elected to the council, including Saleh.

BASTA received much of its funding from the Bell police union, and Carrillo was viewed as someone who was unafraid to take on the department and even make severe cuts to its budget to keep the city afloat.

"It's been a roller-coaster ride for a little over a year," Carrillo said. "It's been exciting, it's been challenging, it's been exhilarating. Both the interim city attorney and I have a laundry list of accomplishments."

jeff.gottlieb@latimes.com.

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