The scandal of grossly inflated city council and top manager salaries in Bell, Calif. – and a similar story about its neighbor Vernon, Calif. – has touched a nerve. It’s being used as the poster child for public sector excess and arrogance.
What’s missing from the outrage, though, is a focus on the underlying causes – or the real cost. We’ve always known that unchecked power is prone to abuse, whether in the private or public sector – even in sacred institutions of faith. But why was such blatant abuse allowed to bloom – and why was it so long ignored? Who really pays the price for official corruption? Most urgently of all, what sensible steps should be take to ensure it is not repeated?
Without that, we may see misguided “reforms” duck the specific solutions to the real problem. Corruption is like cancer – it comes in different forms and is best curbed with specific treatments. Arbitrary new rules aimed at “reforming” every city government would be a ridiculous over-reaction. It would only further hamstring the effectiveness of local government at a time when we need more efficiency, not less. The same goes for generic and toothless reforms that simply sound good.
Lots of causes have been pinpointed. There was a genuine failure of essentially all of the gatekeepers of public integrity. The professional managers, meant to be insulated from political corruption, were instead the source of it. The elected officials, meant to keep an eye on the administrators, co-conspired with them so everyone could participate in the plunder. The city attorney, sworn to uphold the law, signed off on its evasion. Local law enforcement was part of the game. The media, the county grand jury, the district attorney and community leaders and residents were asleep at the wheel.
There are specific, clear-cut and fixable causes for the why these gatekeepers failed – and these risk being lost in the babble and finger pointing.
Bell is one of a dozen inner ring suburbs that prospered on Southern California’s great post-war industrial boom. When others think of Los Angeles, the images evoked are beaches, palm trees, freeways and movies, with perhaps some dark urban dystopia thrown in. Forgotten is that beginning with the shipyards of World War II, the vast tract of flat land between the port and downtown became the second largest industrial concentration in the world, behind the bombed-out German Ruhr. Aerospace, tires, steel, cars, industrial tools, electronics and the other booming industries of postwar America provided opportunity and jobs to the children of the Oakies and Arkies that had streamed into California during the Depression.
Fifty years later, the big plants are closed. The white working class has moved up and on. What remains is a landscape of struggling industries and a half million largely immigrant workers in the remaining manufacturing and service industries at the heart of Southern California, divided up into a dozen municipal jurisdictions that are ripe for corruption.
Three adjacent towns illustrate the problem. Vernon is a 2.5 square mile commercial powerhouse of factories and warehouses. It has a population of just 96 residents. There are no houses or apartments to buy or rent – all the residential real estate is occupied by members of the city council or city employees and their families. It is essentially a financial printing press disguised as a municipality. It’s gusher of tax and utility revenue allows it to support a police force of 54 officers for 96 residents, while it’s next door neighbor struggles with just 38 officers for a population of 40,000. Vernon’s tax base allowed it to pay Bruce Malkenhorst Sr. the highest salary for a city manager in California. But it didn’t keep him from stealing at least another $60,000 to pay for personal massages, golf trips and lavish meals, for which he was eventually indicted. Unconvicted, to this day he collects the highest public pension in the state – more than half a million dollars a year.
On the other side of Bell is Maywood, which is virtually bereft of industry or commerce. Thirty thousand people live there. After years of scandal and political wrangling, It recently found itself in such a fiscal hole that it took the unprecedented step of firing its entire workforce, including disbanding its police force. The county sheriffs took over policing the city (and the adjacent community of Cudahy) and City Hall and other municipal functions were turned over to … Bell.
Three cities. All systematically victimized by corruption. But its not the water, its not the dark side of human nature – it’s the artificial boundaries that determine their common fate.
None of the three cities should be organized as a separate city. The only sensible solution is to consolidate them through receivership, probably as part of a larger redrawing of lines of the dozen cities in the area. New borders should reflect today’s economic and demographic realities, not arbitrary lines drawn by real estate speculators a century ago. A half a million low-income residents are systematically short-changed from getting honest, effective local government and the services it provides because they live in a patchwork of artificial “cities” that hamstring effective governance.
Receivership and re-organization are systematic solutions to the problems in Southeast Los Angeles. “Feel good” statewide legislation is just knee-jerk reaction. Yes, posting city salaries on websites is good for every town in California – or America. But it won’t fix the problem in Bell, Vernon, Maywood and the nearby communities. Having the California state legislature turn its attention from passing a budget to establishing formulas for management pay in every California town is problematic – and also won’t solve the problem in Bell, Vernon, Maywood and the nearby communities.
Tip O’Neill famously observed: “All politics is local.” In this case, the problem in Southeast Los Angeles is also local. It is not confined to a single city, but its cure lies in redrawing lines to create cities that make sense. Then the people there can have a shot at ensuring they get the government they deserve – and the shot at the American dream they strive for.