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Bell moves on, but effects of corruption scandal remain

Council meetings are calmer now than when the pay scandal was raging, but residents still speak up with clear, strong voices on city affairs.

February 17, 2013|By Corina Knoll, Los Angeles Times
  • Participants in a Bell City Council meeting gather in the lobby of the community center, where the proceedings are held. Unlike at the height of the scandal, meetings are more mundane now, more typical of most cities' council meetings.
Participants in a Bell City Council meeting gather in the lobby of the community… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

The mayor's first order of business was to announce an exercise class and a St. Patrick's Day dance. Registration for youth soccer, he reminded everyone, was still open to anyone interested.

And with that, the Bell City Council was in session.

Under harsh overhead lights, about 50 people sat quietly on a Wednesday night on mauve plastic chairs as a representative from the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk's office urged everyone to get out and vote.

A woman upset about what she said was the Police Department harassing her family stood to speak, enlivening a few in the crowd. But whatever energy there was in the room sputtered out as the night wore on and the room slowly emptied. By the end, six people remained in the audience.

PHOTOS: Bell revisited

There was a time when City Hall was filled with seething, engaged residents, every seat taken, every parking spot filled. It was 2010 and residents could be seen leaving cars two blocks away and hiking in to join a crowd of hundreds, all waiting to chant and scream at their council members, who'd just bailed themselves out of jail.

News of corruption in Bell had roused a small, blue-collar city of immigrants, many of whom had never taken an interest in their government. Pine Avenue became a rallying ground for a dizzying mix of anger and excitement. Teenagers handed out fliers calling for activism, single mothers arrived incensed, their children in tow. Cameras flashed and reporters swarmed as grandfathers joined in on chants of "Basta!" — "Enough."

Inside, the room boiled with fury as a seemingly never-ending line of residents marched up to council members and sneered, the grousing spurred on by cheers and applause. Meetings felt almost like a community festivity steeped in militancy.

FULL COVERAGE: Bell corruption trial

"Did you like the food in jail? You looked good in orange," a speaker called out to council members after they were arrested and charged with corruption.

"I'm out of time? You'll be out of time soon!" called out another resident, sensing that the council members would be back in jail before long.

Now — by day — the former council members are on trial, facing allegations that they inflated their salaries to nearly $100,000 by serving on boards that did little work, rarely met and had little purpose. The trial of former City Administrator Robert Rizzo and his onetime assistant will follow.

By night, new council members preside over civic meetings that are as mundane as they are in most every other town and draw only a few dozen observers.

There are PowerPoint presentations with bullet points and maps, appearances from representatives of county agencies, speakers who use catchwords like "retrofit" and "zero emissions," and awkward pauses when electrical equipment goes on the fritz.

Here Rebecca Valdez, a key trial witness who testified for three days under immunity, is merely the city clerk — taking minutes and making notes of ayes and nays. And Roger Ramirez, who testified in the trial that the city gave him falsified salary information when he asked what his city leaders were earning, is just another resident who wants to see improvements in his neighborhood.

The 59-year-old emergency medical technician comes to meetings as often as work permits. One Wednesday he spoke in support of the city's graffiti cleanup efforts, noting that his complaints have gotten a quick response. He stayed for another two hours, not to hear about the improved city website that would allow for more transparency but for an item regarding animal control.

"The city has a lot of issues with loose dogs," Ramirez said. "They roam the streets, they poop on your lawn. And you can't do anything about the barking."

When the resolution for increasing education about animal control passed, several people cheered. They may live in a city known for corruption, but everyday concerns tend to be their priority.

Meetings, though, continue to be peppered with references to a sordid past. Lawsuits related to the scandal are always listed under closed session. Agenda items often have to do with things that occurred under "Rizzo's regime" or "the Bell 8" — phrases used by residents and staff throughout the night.

While presenting an audit from fiscal year 2009-10 riddled with administrative errors, the city's finance director pleaded for more resources to help in "creating a day-to-day viable department and attacking a backlog of problems 10 years in the making."

Residents too cannot help but allude to previous officials' alleged wrongdoing, pointedly reminding council members that they were elected by the people. The rants have died down to the normal level of other cities' meetings, but Bell residents still possess a unique confidence and boldness when approaching the microphone.

"You have an affinity with the people that gives you strength to speak up," explained Marcos Oliva, 41, who often attends council meetings but never stepped to the podium until the scandal began to unfold.

"It's the nature of how this phenomenon came to be. Some people call it a revolution."

The result has been council sessions that are far more interactive than in the years when resolutions passed during near-empty forums.

Now agendas are posted online with hundreds of pages of staff reports and minutes. English and Spanish translators are available at meetings, which are also streamed live. The city plans to begin archiving those videos soon. These are major upgrades for a city that didn't have a website until 2009.

Perhaps the most extensive reform is in the residents themselves.

"Sometimes we was blind," said Carmen Bella, 78, a fixture in Bell. "But we opened our eyes."

corina.knoll@latimes.com

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