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Bell's all-new, all-novice council faces nasty choices

With the city on the edge of insolvency, immediate budget cuts — including possible closure of the Police Department — will be needed.

March 10, 2011|By Christopher Goffard, Paloma Esquivel and Ruben Vives, Los Angeles Times
  • Danny Harber, center, and Ali Saleh, right, thank fellow Bell resident Richard Addy for supporting their campaigns for City Council. Harber, Saleh and three other first-time elected officials will be sworn in March 22. [For the Record: An earlier version of this caption misspelled Ali Saleh's last name as Salek.]
Danny Harber, center, and Ali Saleh, right, thank fellow Bell resident… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

Now that arrests, resignations and voter ballots have scythed away Bell's entire City Council, the incoming leaders of the beleaguered little city — all first-time officeholders — will confront a budget in disarray, a citizenry expecting quick reforms and a long list of nasty choices.

Parties lasted well into the night Tuesday after voters picked five new representatives to sit on a council that hasn't been able to function for months. But the celebratory mood is likely to abate quickly.

Bell election: In the March 10 LATExtra section, a photo caption that accompanied an article about the newly elected Bell City Council misidentified the subject in the photograph as Danny Harber. The photo showed incoming council member Ali Saleh, pictured above. —

Already, most of the incoming council members have called for the firing of Interim City Administrator Pedro Carrillo and Interim City Atty. Jamie Casso, both perceived as links to former City Administrator Robert Rizzo and the council members he once installed. Rizzo and seven other ousted Bell leaders are facing criminal charges of looting this city in southeastern Los Angeles County.

"I want to remove whoever is at City Hall who's not working for us. I want to know who put them behind those desks. I want to know what qualifications they have," said Violeta Alvarez, one of the winners in Tuesday's election.

Both Carrillo and Casso have walked a tightrope since a salary scandal enveloped the city last summer, at times criticized for being part of the "Rizzo regime," and at other times praised for addressing the city's financial crisis.

Two other incoming council members, Ali Saleh and Danny Harber, also called for the removal of Carrillo and Casso. "I think we just need a fresh start," Harber said.

Casso said it was an unfair characterization to say he and Carrillo were part of the "Rizzo regime," but added that both had taken their jobs with the understanding that they were interim positions.

Carrillo said Wednesday he has been in touch with new council members and is preparing staff reports on possible cuts to keep the city solvent.

"The interim government has basically taken some very calculated decisions in the best interest of the city of Bell," Carrillo said. "We haven't shut our doors. We're still in a position where we can balance the budget. We all have to come together now with the new council."

In a previous staff report, Carrillo said the city will have a deficit of $3.5 million to $4.5 million by the end of June if it doesn't take drastic steps, which might include disbanding the 84-year-old Police Department and contracting with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

But the Bell police union, which poured an estimated $30,000 to $40,000 into the city elections in a fight to keep the department alive, hailed Tuesday's results. Harber, Saleh and Alvarez had all enjoyed the union's endorsement. All said they hoped to keep the Police Department, which is being investigated for possible civil rights violations and predatory law enforcement.

Harber said he would like to renegotiate the police contract and bargain for pay cuts. "They say they're willing to sit down and take a pay cut, as well as restructure the department," Harber said. "But just because they supported the slate doesn't mean they get whatever they want."

Incoming councilman Nestor Valencia ran under the Justice for Bell banner, which was associated with a call to dismantle the department. But he said he hasn't made up his mind on the issue. "Everything's on the table, including a metro police, including asking them to lower their salaries and adjusting their pensions," he said.

Valencia was also measured on the question of whether to fire Casso and Carrillo. "I know the knee-jerk reaction is to throw these people out," he said. "We're professionals now. We can't go in there blazing guns."

Another issue confronting the new council members, who will be sworn in after the election is certified March 22, is what to do with $23.5 million left over from $50 million in bonds that voters approved to pay for a sports park and other civic improvements.

The sports park was never built and has remained little more than a dirt lot encircled by a fence while the bond money was placed in a non-interest-bearing account controlled by Rizzo, according to state Controller John Chiang.

Harber, Alvarez and Saleh said they would like to return the money. Valencia said he favors putting the money in an interest-bearing account while the council figures out what to do with it.

"The larger point is, we have to look at the culture of living within our means, driving a Camry, not a Lexus," Valencia said.

Ana-Maria Quintana, an independent candidate who was elected despite seeking no endorsements, said she will seek copies of the city budget and employee contracts to get a better understanding of the city's standing.

She said she supports keeping the Police Department, but opposes keeping any service whose cost exceeds city revenues. "You don't want to create more debt," she said. "If we don't have the money, we don't have the money, and I think the Police Department knows that."

Quintana said she wants to switch Bell from a charter city to a general law city. In 2005, a measure changing Bell from a general law city to a charter city lifted salary caps on council members, who went on to approve further pay raises for Rizzo and for themselves. Quintana also hopes for greater civic participation. She did not call for the firing of Casso and Carrillo and said the real issue is whether city employees are doing their jobs.

"We have good people in the city of Bell and we have bad people working there," Quintana said. "We just have to get rid of those few bad apples."

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