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Bell voters cast out the old and opt for the new

Residents of the scandal-racked city recall four council members and elect five.

March 09, 2011|By Christopher Goffard and Paloma Esquivel, Los Angeles Times
  • Members of Bell's Lebanese community and supporters of Ali Saleh celebrate his victory in the city election in Bell.
Members of Bell's Lebanese community and supporters of Ali Saleh… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)

On a day when Bell's disgraced former boss waited in court to hear his fate, voters in the city he once commanded were lining up deep into the evening to dismantle his legacy, ballot by ballot.

As votes were counted Tuesday, it became clear that the small southeast Los Angeles County city, which became a synonym for unbridled municipal greed under City Administrator Robert Rizzo, will have an entirely new cast of faces on the City Council.

Whatever differences the new leaders may have with each other — the sharpest being whether to disband a Police Department tainted by allegations of civil rights violations and predatory law enforcement — all have cast themselves as reformers eager to dispel the gloom and mistrust that came to surround City Hall.

Through the morning and early afternoon, Rizzo was sitting in Los Angeles County Superior Court in downtown L.A. with his former deputy, Angela Spaccia, and two other former city leaders at a hearing to determine whether they will stand trial on charges they bilked the city through phony contracts, exorbitant salaries and illegal loans.

Regardless of the legal outcome, the scandal's effects were on vivid display throughout the day a few miles away in Bell.

It could be seen in the line, more than 100 people-long at times, extending out the door at Epoca Restaurant & Hall on Atlantic Avenue, one of four polling sites in the working-class town. In the circling van emblazoned with United 4 Bell signs. In the man hanging out the passenger window, urging people through a loudspeaker to get out and vote. In candidate signs sprouting from lawns all over the 2 1/2- square-mile city. Some of them still bore the name of candidate Miguel Sanchez, who died last week, leaving 17 candidates contending for five City Council spots.

Final but unofficial results showed residents voted overwhelmingly to recall Mayor Oscar Hernandez and council members Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal, as well as Luis Artiga, who quit the council last year but remained targeted for recall. Even Lorenzo Velez, the lone councilman not charged in the Bell corruption case, appeared to suffer collateral damage and lost his bid to keep his seat.

Danny Harber won the vote to replace Jacobo, Ana Maria Quintana was the top vote-getter to succeed Artiga, and Ali Saleh, Nestor Valencia and Violeta Alvarez will fill the other three seats.

Some longtime residents said they felt compelled to vote for the first time. Manuel Godoy, 61, said he has lived in Bell for 30 years, raised three daughters there and owns a home. But he never felt the need to cast a ballot before Tuesday, even as in recent years he watched the city's property taxes climb to among the highest in the county.

"You get busy, you don't want to get involved," said Godoy, a retired caterer and ice cream deliveryman, after voting Tuesday. "It's a big mistake."

He said he was angered by revelations about the high salaries collected by Rizzo and most of the City Council members. "It's OK to take a little piece of the pie, but not that much," he said.

Eugene Crowner, 73, a retired railroad clerk, has lived in Bell so long that he can remember when all the families, like his, were white. On Tuesday's ballot, most candidates were Latinos, some of whom he voted for. His polling site happened to be Grace Lutheran Church on Pine Avenue, where his father became pastor in 1941, and where he grew up playing on the parish grounds.

Crowner said he had been a voter for years, but he did something different this time: He brought a camera to commemorate the moment. This wasn't just any election.

"It ought to be a new beginning," Crowner said, walking down the block to the Spanish-tile home where he has lived most of his life. "We'll get a new broom to sweep out City Hall."

Something else was different this time, he said. There were lines. Though less than a quarter of registered voters showed up for the 2009 elections, turnout among the 10,485 registered voters this year was 33%.

Crowner has followed the scandal and knows that some people have said it can't get much worse. He isn't so sure.

"When we get a new council sweeping out City Hall," he said, "there's no telling what they'll find."

Last year, four of Bell's five council members were charged with misappropriating city money by collecting big salaries for sitting on boards that did little or no work.

Outside the polling site at Iglesia de Dios church, the volunteers hanging out on the sidewalk far outnumbered voters. Candidate Rivas, who was motoring across town on a Segway through the day, handed out fliers and asked for support.

Rivas lost his bid for the council in 2009. He said this election was different.

"When I first ran, I had five volunteers," he said. "We have over 400 now." He said voters are more informed this time around. "They've read the booklet, they've taken into account the media reports … whoever gets elected, they really earned it."

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