Sacramento – The city of Bell has been California’s poster child for local-government corruption, ever since the Los Angeles Times in 2010 exposed the greed and mismanagement that plagued the Los Angeles County burg. The story was a juicy one: The leaders of a tiny impoverished city lavished huge salaries and benefit packages on themselves, illegally raised taxes, and ignored their civic responsibilities while covering up the desperate state of the city’s finances. Unfortunately, the follow-up story about how Bell has become a model for fiscal responsibility and civic engagement hasn’t been as widely told.
But first a recounting of the scandal: In 2010, Times reporter Ruben Vives discovered the story after investigating the neighboring city of Maywood’s effort to outsource its city services to Bell. Another reporter tried to get budget documents from Bell, which resisted the public-information requests. Finally, reporter Jeff Gottlieb asked Bell’s city manager, Robert Rizzo, how much money he earned working for the city.
The answer was an astounding $700,000, which turned out to be a vast understatement. “He was being paid $1.5 million in all,” according to NPR. “The reporters painstakingly pieced together the puzzle. Only 400 people took part in a 2005 vote that made Bell a charter city. New city commissions gave council members new posts that paid them big bucks, too, out of the public eye.” No one was watching, and some of the city’s leaders had a field day.
Many of the people who should have served as checks on the plunder, were in fact in on the game, receiving extraordinary salaries and benefits. As the LA Weekly explained, “In this city of fewer than 40,000 – 90 percent Latino, with an income well below the national average – the tiny political class took advantage of the residents’ lack of civic engagement to create a slop-filled public trough for elites while cutting services and laying off workers.” The article featured a photo of angry city residents and compared it to a Tea Party-like uprising.
The ensuing scandal was national news and Vives won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting. Rizzo ultimately was sentenced to 12 years in prison, and five other officials, including four City Council members and the assistant city manager, received various sentences.
But the real story, as the LA Weekly noted, is about civic engagement. Look what happens when virtually no one is paying attention to City Hall. There also was something of an ugly undercurrent in some of the discussions of the scandal, an assumption that residents in a poor, overwhelmingly Spanish-speaking city couldn’t be expected to hold their leaders accountable.
Fast forward. The city recently “received an investment-grade rating from S&P Global Ratings ahead of a $24.6 million refunding that represents the city’s return to the public debt market after a corruption scandal erupted eight years ago,” according to a report this month in the Bond Buyer. S&P opined that Bell has “sufficiently reformed its practices and policies and has rehabilitated its finances” and that the “stable outlook also reflects our expectation that, over time, the city’s staff retention will improve and the city’s political culture will continue becoming more transparent and responsive.”
The financial news is great, but the latter point about transparency and an improved political culture is even better. In its 2015 “Rebuilding Bell, California” report, Columbia Law School’s Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity noted that Bell has implemented myriad transparency, accountability, oversight and conflict-of-interest policies.
These “ethics and anti-corruption provisions are not just for the clearly corrupt, though the hope is that strict measures will at least slow those officials down, limit the damage from their actions, and/or speed detection of their wrongdoing,” according to the 2015 report. Shortly after the scandal, the League of California Cities also detailed some of the promising new procedures the city has put into place to restore oversight and trust.
But it gets even better as time went on. After the scandal broke, NPR reported that City Council meetings that typically drew four or five people were bringing out 2,000. That’s understandable when anger is high, but Pete Peterson, dean of the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy in Malibu, recently noted that large numbers of city residents have participated in goal-setting forums and other sessions. There appears to be sustained public interest in city affairs seven years after the scandal was publicized.” Peterson notes that most public officials make decisions in quiet and then allow the public to make their comments about a largely pre-ordained conclusion. Public participation in these forums might be the antidote to such things.
“While most know the story of Bell as it was originally reported, few know the dramatic civic transformation the city has undergone since,” Peterson explained. “With new, local elected leadership, and a series of excellent administrators, Bell has gone a long way to rebuild that trust with its residents that was lost almost exactly seven years ago.”
For instance, the city’s new website that posts city meetings and records even received a top ranking for transparency. As good-government groups have noted, public transparency is the key to fighting public corruption. The city has even made it simple for residents to track spending on government contracts, which typically is hard to do in cities, as any reporter who has tried to find these documents and financial figures would tell you.
Cities shouldn’t have to hit the wall before getting their act together, but Bell’s new era of transparency certainly is encouraging. It’s far more interesting to read tales of corruption than it is to read about working-class citizens who turn out on a Tuesday night to pay attention to mostly banal City Council proceedings. But the combination of skillful news reporting and renewed involvement by residents really is the key to holding public officials accountable. It’s a credit to Bell’s residents that their city now is a poster child for doing things in an open and honest manner.
Steven Greenhut is a contributing editor for the California Policy Center. He is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.