SPPD Panel Examines Lessons from Bell Scandal

SPPD Panel Examines Lessons from Bell Scandal

By Cristy Lytal

City of Bell Panel A recent USC panel focusing on the lessons from the City of Bell scandal drew media from CNN, Fox TV, Univision and several Chinese news outlets.
Photo by Tom Queally

At a recent panel addressing the checks and balances needed to prevent government corruption scandals like the one in the City of Bell, California State Assemblyman Hector De La Torre (D-South Gate) said of local public officials, “We’re going to trust that they’re going to do the right thing, but we’re going to put some limitations on them.”

The other panelists – Chris McKenzie, executive director of the League of California Cities; Terry Cooper, the Maria B. Crutcher Professor in Citizenship and Democratic Values at the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development; and Ruben Vives and Jeff Gottlieb, the Los Angeles Times staff writers who broke the story of the scandal – were divided about what these limitations should be.

Jack H. Knott, the C. Erwin and Ione L. Piper Dean and Professor, moderated the discussion, which was sponsored by the American Society for Public Administration and the USC Judith and John Bedrosian Center on Governance and the Public Enterprise. The event drew an audience of SPPD alumni and public administration professionals, as well as reporters from CNN, Fox TV, Univision and several Chinese media outlets.

“This is about Bell, but it’s not just about Bell,” Knott said of the scandal in which Bell public officials paid themselves salaries ranging from $100,000 to nearly $800,000, charging property taxes higher than those in Beverly Hills, engaged in alleged voter fraud and reportedly imposed illegal sewer fees. Meanwhile, Bell suffers from a 16 percent unemployment rate, and its 36,000 citizens earn a per capita annual income of $24,800.

While De La Torre advocated for legislative reforms – increasing transparency and eliminating evergreen clauses that automatically renew contracts, to name two examples – McKenzie argued that more research was needed before taking any action at all.

“Did you know that the council manager form of government was a major reform of the Progressive Era?” he asked. “It was designed to root out corruption and Tammany Hall-type activities. So before we talk about throwing that baby out with the bath water, let’s make sure we understand the tradition and what it’s designed to produce and that we move with great care.”

McKenzie attributed the egregious behavior in Bell to a few bad apples as opposed to a failure of the system. He suggested a simple solution to remedy the problem of Bell’s city administrator Robert Rizzo, whose annual salary exceeded $780,000 — “a good, competent, professional city manager who would bring on a professional team.”

Cooper pointed out that a good city manager shouldn’t be hard to find, given that “the International City/County Management Association has the oldest code of ethics in the public sector” and that this code is “almost a religion.”

However, Cooper also acknowledged aspects of the system that enabled Rizzo’s behavior.

“The press is, in fact, the last hope for the flow of information necessary for democratic governance, and the press is being systematically eroded and weakened, especially in its capacity to cover local government,” he said.

Picking up the slack and performing the watchdog role was overwhelming for the average citizen of Bell. In this working-class city, only four or five people had the time to attend any given council meeting. Agendas were confusing and often contained “small little graphs, weird language,” Vives said.

When asked to provide information in accordance with the California Public Records Act, Bell would sometimes furnish citizens with fake documents.

The reporters acknowledged that an element of luck led them to the story.

“What started it was going to a council meeting in Maywood, which led us to Bell,” Vives said. “One night we heard, ‘The police department is being disbanded; we’re getting rid of all city employees [in Maywood and contracting with neighboring Bell].’ ”

Once the Times reporters lifted the veil on the corruption in Bell, the citizens took action — proving that the people themselves are still the most important check and balance on the system.

“People mobilized rather quickly and began to get organized and express themselves,” Cooper said. “So the assumption that the people don’t care and are apathetic simply isn’t true. It’s just that they don’t know what’s going on.”