To understand what went wrong in the city of Bell, it is important to recall the three principal groups that animate our political system: elected officials, the press and citizens.
Democracy requires that each group perform specific responsibilities. Public officials must respond to queries from citizens and the press in a timely and forthright manner. The press must provide citizens information they can use to make informed assessments of public officials and their policies. Finally, it is the job of the public to pay attention to public affairs and to turn out and vote.
In Bell, all three groups were not performing their respective roles.
Citizens and reporters should be able to ask a direct question of local government officials and get a direct answer. For example, exactly how much does the city manager make? The Los Angeles Times reporters had to threaten legal action against Bell to get this information.
Similarly, it took two Brandman University graduate students in the Masters in Public Administration Program nearly four months and hundreds of hours to find out how much city managers in Orange County were compensated. While several cities cooperated, many others gave the students the run around. Two charged for access to this information. Two others said that the public was not entitled to know the details of city official compensation packages.
Moreover, total compensation is nearly impossible to decipher because city manager base salaries do not include extras such as free cars, forgivable housing loans, deferred compensation, or the fact that city managers may hold more than one paid position. There was also no consistent reporting format, which made comparisons difficult to make.
Much of the debate regarding the press has to do with its alleged liberal bias. Instead of a political bias, the media have a “level of government” bias: attention is lavished on federal institutions, especially the presidency, whereas state and local government are largely ignored. That is why most of us know where Michelle Obama gets her clothes (J-Crew), but little about state and local government. (Pop Quiz: how many members of the Orange County Board of Supervisors can you name?)
Why is there no full-time television bureau from Los Angeles–the media capital of the world– covering the governor and legislature of the nation’s most important state? Why was the press asleep at the wheel for so many years in Bell while the city manager and council were ripping off its working class residents? Why did our local press fail to warn us about Bob Citron, Mike Corona, and Steve Rocco? Why did they fail to tell us until recently about the lavish perks that some city managers have received while teachers and other low wage public workers were being let go, and social welfare programs for the sick and elderly, are being cut?
Voters make up the most important group. A voter approved measure made the abuses in Bell possible. The problem is that only 400 of Bells 37, 000 residents voted in the election. Because no one was watching, the Bell elected figured they could get away with paying their city manager nearly $800,000, the assistant city manager $376,000, $457,000 for the police chief, and themselves $100,000 for minimal work-at a time when our state is broke. Citizens must be a check on such outrageous abuses of power.
Each group needs to learn from Bell if future appalling abuses are to be avoided. Legislation is needed to ensure transparency in local government. Total city employee compensation needs to be posted on city web pages, in a manner that the average person can understand.
The press needs to take a hard look at itself and get back to coverage that informs, rather than entertains. That won’t be possible until citizens understand the critical role they are expected to play in our political system and as a result demand such coverage from media outlets.
To this end, civics courses, which have been dropped from K-12 curricula, need to be reintroduced, with a focus on local government. Finally, the barriers to informed participation in local politics need to be reduced, by the adoption of vote by mail, which has proven successful in Oregon and Washington and many other political jurisdictions.Local government is the most trusted level of government in American politics.
Nevertheless, the lesson from Bell and similar abuses that have come to light in our County is the need for eternal vigilance by us all.