An unchecked gusher of municipal corruption scandal has been pouring out of the tiny city of Bell.
Suddenly, we learn that America’s highest paid City Manager works in a town most Southern Californians couldn’t find on a map. We’re shocked that a Police Chief running a department with less than forty officers earns more than his counterpart overseeing more than 10,000 cops at the Los Angeles Police Department. We’re outraged that four Bell Councilmembers helped themselves to $100,000 salaries in a town where the average family income is $30,000.
But wait, wait, there’s more.
The only real surprise, though, is that it’s taken this long to be noticed.
For decades, adjoining Vernon has resembled organized crime more than a local municipality. There are just 32 residences, all reserved for elected officials and city employees. Yet Vernon has a larger Police force than Bell, which has a population of nearly 40,000. The votes in Vernon last contested council “election” were counted by a court after the City confiscated the ballots. The contest pitted three long-serving incumbents against three interlopers who secretly moved into a commercial property in a failed hostile take-over.
At stake: a municipal corporation with $164 million in cash and liquid assets. Vernon was ruled by three generations of its founding family until the grandson was convicted of voting in Vernon while living in a Hancock Park mansion. He’d been Mayor for 33 years. Vernon’s City Manager was also indicted — he continues to collect the highest public pension in California: $499,000 a year for life. L.A. County’s District Attorney uncovered more than $60,000 in city funds he spent on lavish meals, golf vacations, limousines, massages and political campaign contributions. Wait, wait, there’s more . . .
Next to Bell is Maywood. Just before the Bell scandal exploded, that one-square mile city made national news by firing its entire city workforce. The media headlined the story as a dire symptom of California’s fiscal crisis, but they were hoodwinked. The Assistant City Manager of Bell was installed as Maywood’s interim City Manager – a coup where one impoverished southeast Los Angeles “city” seized another. Bell’s overpaid Police Chief schemed to take over policing Maywood and adjoining Cudahy. Wait, wait, there’s more . . .
There was Southgate, where a ruthless young pol captured control of the City government, looting more than $20 million in public funds during a wild spending spree that finally ended on the night before his recall from office took effect. He and his cronies stood over the city’s reluctant controller, forcing him to sign huge last-minute checks to conniving law firms hired by their political machine. Wait, wait, there’s more . . .
So was Bell really a surprise? No, it was hiding in plain sight in a sea of municipal corruption.
When the apartheid regime ruled South Africa, the civilized world recoiled at the cynical manipulation of artificially created “Bantustans.” These segregated territories were conveniently drawn to cordon off the impoverished majority of the population in “independent” entities that were utterly devoid of industry and resources and ruled by cooperative opportunists.
The cities on southeast Los Angeles County weren’t deliberately drawn to systematically victimize the overwhelmingly Latino populations that now live there. With the exception of Vernon and Commerce, they were once reasonably prosperous suburbs. They housed the working class families employed the aerospace, auto, rubber and steel plants that once dominated the second largest industrial concentration in the world. But as the giant factories closed, the populations shifted to the burgeoning population of Latinos who took lower-paying jobs in the small-time manufacturing and service businesses that make up the underside of the Los Angeles economy.
Far from Beverly Hills and the beach, in sight of the gleaming towers of downtown L.A. but a world away, these obscure municipalities have proven tempting prizes for crooks to plunder, while the rest of Southern California worried about traffic, smog and taxes.
It is not an entirely bleak history. Plenty of hard-working and selfless elected officials and city employees have toiled for low pay to deliver inadequate public services to a population desperately in need of them.
One town, Paramount, even managed to overcome the odds and emerge as a remarkably clean and well-run model community. But Lynwood, Huntington Park, Compton, Cudahy and Bell Gardens have suffered periodic political wars and scandals like Bell, Maywood and Southgate. Combined, these cities would have a population second only to Long Beach in Los Angeles County. Brazen scandals make the news, but their desperate struggles with crime, overcrowding, failing schools and joblessness fail to register on the Richter scale of public concern.
So Vernon continues to masquerade as a legitimate California city. The newly-energized citizens of Bell may install a slate of newcomers to hire a new City Manager to clean house. The citizens of Maywood may try to reconstruct their eviscerated municipal government. Cudahy may turn to the Sheriffs to see how much law enforcement their tiny city can buy. Southgate can continue to claw its way back to solvency. And when the Bell scandal fades, citizens of greater Los Angeles can resume watching the struggling Dodgers, in blissful ignorance of the realities of life in our region’s desperate rust belt.
That’s the way it has been for years. Just don’t act surprised in a couple of years when another scandal erupts there.
The sensible alternative would be to insist that a judge or the State Legislature place all these cities into temporary receivership. Over the next year, the competent and dedicated professional staff in these cities could be reorganized into a sensible structure to deliver cost-effective local services, absent duplication or malfeasance. The huge wealth and commercial tax base of the industrial cities of Vernon and Commerce would be included to fund services in the places where their tens of thousands of workers actually live.
Then an honest election should be held where the combined citizenry would be given a choice — whether they want to create, say, three cities (the size of Pasadena or Downey) or one combined city (the size of Long Beach.) Whatever their choice, the new city or cities could contract for public services with public and private agencies, just as nearby stable and prosperous Lakewood has done for decades.
Such a solution is no panacea. The area will still have an aging industrial base and a lower-income population. But the dysfunctional and easily plundered satrapies will be swept away. There will be a substantial population of home-owning taxpaying voters that neither politicians nor the larger media will be able to ignore. It will be a test case for turning around the most-deprived neighborhoods in Los Angeles County, giving the kind of citizens now marching on Bell City Hall a fighting chance for the self-government and civic solvency they are clamoring for.
Never been done? Nonsense. When Pat Brown was California Governor, hundreds of tiny school districts were consolidated as part of a sweeping reform of public education. That’s why most school districts today retain “unified” in their names. More recently, successful municipal consolidations have been achieved in Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
The rampant municipal corruption in Bell is not the inevitable byproduct of demographics, nor can it be dismissed as simple human greed. The fault lies not in our stars nor canny crooks, but in ourselves. We allow nearly half a million of our fellow citizens to be trapped in corruption-plagued artificial jurisdictions. It’s in our power to drain the swamp and give them hope for honest elections, adequate public services and city officials who work for them, not themselves. These are civic rights the rest of us take for granted. It’s time they were ensured to the residents in communities like Bell.
Rick Cole is the City Manager of Ventura, serving on the Executive Committee of the City Manager Department of the League of California Cities. He previously served as City Manager of Azusa and Mayor of Pasadena. He won the 2009 Excellence in Government Award from the Municipal Management Association of Southern California.