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Bell's voters have a real choice this time, thanks to the scandal

On March 8 the city's voters will have something they haven't had in years: candidates not hand-picked by former City Administrator Robert Rizzo — 18 of them.

March 04, 2011|By Christopher Goffard, Los Angeles Times

When last the people of Bell had a chance to pick their local leaders, the choices were pinched, the outcome all but predetermined. When Ali Saleh, who runs a family clothing business, filed candidacy papers for a council seat in 2009, his phone rang with what he described as a warning from then-City Administrator Robert Rizzo. "You don't have a chance," he recalled Rizzo saying.

Not much chance, anyway. During his long reign as city boss, Rizzo mastered a stratagem to keep his people in power, year after year. Council members resigned midterm, and he handpicked replacements, who enjoyed the momentum of incumbency when elections rolled around. In a city of 37,000 where few came out to vote, they could win with just 1,200 ballots.

"It's always been appointed, resigned, appointed, resigned," said Saleh, 35, who was trounced by two Rizzo-blessed incumbents in that election. "I was slaughtered."

Now, Rizzo is at the center of a sweeping corruption case, and six past or present council members are charged with looting public funds. They are a much-vilified pack rarely seen in public anymore, with a court order to avoid City Hall as they await trial. Public disgust has energized candidates in the small city southeast of Los Angeles, where democracy had grown moribund. All five council seats are up for grabs in the March 8 special election, and 18 candidates are running in the most crowded, clamorous race in memory.

Whoever wins, many of the candidates say, ordinary residents have at least reclaimed their voice, and perhaps their city.

But Bell is now financially crippled. And tough choices — such as whether to save $4 million a year by disbanding the city's 84-year-old Police Department and turning operations over to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department — will face the incoming council. Saleh is on the ballot again, this time with a fighting chance. He wants to keep the Police Department and revamp the city's business district, which had been hobbled by arbitrary fees and taxes.

"Our city's like a ghost town because of the Rizzo regime," Saleh said.

Cristina Garcia, spokeswoman for the Bell Assn. to Stop the Abuse — a civic group formed in response to the scandal — has been sending activists door to door, urging people to vote. Two years ago, there were 9,395 voters registered, but fewer than a fourth cast ballots. This time, with 10,485 registered, "I'll be shocked if we don't get 60% turnout," Garcia said.

Teresa Jacobo, one of the current council members charged with misappropriating public funds, is fighting a recall effort. Recalls were launched against other arrested council members — Luis Artiga, Oscar Hernandez and George Mirabal — but Artiga resigned, and Hernandez and Mirabal aren't seeking reelection. Lorenzo Velez, the lone council member not swept up in the corruption case, is seeking another term. But most expect a completely new council.

Garcia said she hopes voter engagement endures. "Most people are inspired during the moment, then the lack of real change disenchants them. I'm hoping Bell will be a model city for many other cities," she said.

The election has uncorked a flow of campaign money uncommon in small-town races, some of it originating far outside Bell. Gwilym McGrew, a retired Woodland Hills businessman, has given about $60,000 to three candidates seeking to disband the Police Department.

The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor has decried his contributions as "tea party money," though McGrew said he is not a member and became interested in the race only because of the salary scandal.

Meanwhile, the Bell police union, fighting to elect candidates who will keep the department alive, said it expects to spend $30,000 to $40,000 on the contest.

On a recent night at the Bell Community Center, where hundreds of residents packed the room to meet candidates, the mood was buoyant and tinged with anger. It was hardly necessary, but Maria Blanco, a representative of the California Community Foundation, which co-hosted the forum, reminded people of what had happened in Bell. She called it "el robo de una ciudad." The theft of a city, she said.

"There's energy here, there's hope here — look at this place," said candidate Ana Maria Quintana, a real estate lawyer who recently moved to Bell from neighboring Cudahy and decided to run after being "shocked and outraged" by the scandal.

As a glimpse of municipal democracy in all its messy charm, the event would have been hard to top. Candidates ranged from the relatively polished, like Quintana, who went to Yale, to the seriously tongue-tied, like Donald Tavares, 48, who drives a Coke truck and has never run for office. On stage, he managed to say that public safety is his top priority before losing his train of thought.

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