The story which Joe Gottlieb and Ruben Vives broke wide open in their July 15, 2010 article ended up earning them Pulitzer Prizes. It helped drive corruption from a city, and it helped shape a yearlong discussion about governance, transparency, and accountability.
2010 was the year that the Bell rung loudest of all. However, its tolling still echoes throughout the state, leading many to wonder how Bell will be ultimately remembered, what legacy the stories will leave behind, and how far the reach of the scandal really will be. Certainly, among the effects already realized across the state is the heightened attention being devoted to the concepts shunned so thoroughly in Bell.
One of the most substantial changes in the city of Bell was the restoration of rights and respect sought by the residents of Bell who had been wronged.
First, they fought against state take over of their city, advocating in courts and in the court of public opinion against being placed into a receivership, the proposed plan of then-Attorney General Gerry Brown. Eventually they would win not only that battle, but also one at the ballot box, recalling all of the members from their city council. Now, with their new council in place, a civically active population of once disenfranchised residents is working towards rebuilding their community.
The first reform to come from the state level came from State Controller John Chiang. Little more than two weeks after the story broke, his office announced it would require the public disclosure of all employees’ compensation and coordinate the dissemination of that information. A tall order, the creation of such a database could not have happened so quickly or so completely without the input and support of California’s local government associations.
The League of Cities was quick to join with the Controller’s office to help create the system the state has today. Other groups, like the California Special Districts Association, worked tirelessly to ensure that its member governments complied. In fact, by the end of the four phases of reporting, nearly all of CSDA’stheir more than 1,000 plus member agencies were in compliance.
But the movement for reform, or attempted reform, does not end there. Groups like the California Special District Association began tracking a flurry of legislation they labeled their ‘local government transparency measures,’ or what were more colloquially referred to as the ‘Bell Bills.’ The Bell Bills will be one of either two things: the mechanism for ensuring the long-term legacy of the Bell scandal, or the legislative distraction from that same legacy.
At one point, as many as three dozens bills were proposed to increase transparency and protect populations from unscrupulous public officials. Some offer real change for increased transparency and accountability.
We know that the city council members in Bell inflated their salaries by meeting in concurrent or consecutive sessions. Oftentimes, the City Council also serves as the board for other municipal functions. This is often by design and isn’t necessarily immoral or unethical. But when abused, like it was in Bell, it can be. For instance, on March 22, 2008, the Bell city council convened a meeting of the redevelopment agency at 7:21 pm. They concluded the meeting’s agenda one minute later. For that minute, they received a full stipend.
In response, Assemblyman Cameryn Smyth proposed AB 23. His bill would require a verbal announcement of any compensation being received for meetings that occur in consecutive, concurrent, or serial sessions. In other words, a member of the board or staff would have to say for the record and anyone gathered for the meeting, how much money they are entitled to for that meeting. This plan, hearkening back to the days of having a town crier, while unconventional, could be productive.
But not all the legislation that has been proposed will either positively impact local governance or is necessary. Take for instance Assembly Bill 187 and Senate Bill 186.
Assemblyman Ricardo Lara’s bill, AB 187, would give the Controller’s office the power to audit local governments that it determines are at a high risk of waste or fraud. Senator Christine Kehoe’s bill, SB186, would give the Controller’s office the power to audit local governments determined to be at a high risk of waste or fraud.
Or look at SB 46 introduced by Senator Lou Correa.
This bill would require that as part of a public officials Form 700 filing, they also submit a form detailing their compensation. While this legislation is not the clone of another piece like AB 187 and SB 186 are, it certainly sounds decidedly similar to the Controller’s database that has already been operational for nine months.
AB 527 would have greatly expanded the reach of Government Code 1090, and imposed strict penalties for conflict of interest violations. However, it was ambiguous legislation at best, and crippling at worst.
Even well intentioned legislation like Assemblyman Luis Alejo’s AB 392 could have been disastrous to local governments. It would have prevented, under the Brown Act, any board or council from acting upon an issue where a staff report or supplemental document had not been publicly posted for 72 hours before a meeting.
The inflexibility of this would have been ruinous.
So over the past year, what effect has Bell had? What has started to shape the scandal’s legacy? The immediate impacts are clear. Bell increased civic awareness, involvement, and scrutiny across the state. It has inspired dozens of pieces of legislation to be introduced in Sacramento.
But in the year since Gottlieb and Vives broke the story, there have undoubtedly been changes. The increase of transparency and accountability in the state is palpable. As the effects of the Bell Eight continue to ripple across California, I believe that is exactly what they will be remembered for: promoting transparency, inspiring civic activism, and reminding people across the spectrum of governance that they work and serve the betterment of their communities, at the pleasure of their constituencies.