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For whom the Bell tolls

POSTED August 6, 2010 8:44 p.m.

I would like to offer the City of Bell my gratitude for proving that newspapers are still needed in this day and age.

 

The shocking misuse of taxpayer funds by the Bell City Council and top administrative staff is a prime example of how the Fourth Estate is a vital component to the success of a democratic state. If it wasn’t for the reporting of Jeff Gottlieb and Ruben Vives of the Los Angeles Times, Bell City Council members, the city manager and police chief would still be raking in obscene amounts of money in the so-called service of their community.

 

In June, The Times revealed that leaders of the small southern Los Angeles County town — which has a population under 40,000 — were getting paid hundreds of thousands of dollars more than what their counterparts in metropolitan cities earned.

 

Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo was making more than $787,000 a year, Police Chief Randy Adams $457,000 and most of the City Council close to $100,000 each, according to The Times.

 

In comparison, Turlock — which has a population close to 70,000 — pays City Manager Roy Wasden more than $202,000 a year, Interim Public Safety Director Gary Hampton $191,700  and each of the city council members $500 a month.

 

The scandalous salaries of Bell’s supposed city leaders would still be unknown if it wasn’t for the misdeeds of neighboring city Maywood, which caught the interest of The Times editorial staff. The regional newspaper was reporting on Maywood’s decision to layoff all city employees and begin contracting police services with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

 

The Maywood City Council contracted the City of Bell to handle other city services such as finance, records, parks and recreation and maintenance. During their investigation into Maywood, The Times turned up a Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office investigation into the salaries of Bell’s City Council members.

 

From there, The Times followed the trail of public documents which reported the financial shenanigans of Bell officials for at least five years. Their subsequent reports have ignited a string of resignations, official investigations and public outcry in Bell.

 

On Tuesday, State Controller John Chiang announced new reporting requirements for all California cities and counties, directing them to clearly identify elected officials and public employees’ compensation. The information will be posted on the Controller’s website, starting in November. In a written statement, the Controller’s office attributes the new requirement to the happenings in Bell.

 

“The absence of transparency is a breeding ground for waste, fraud, and abuse of taxpayer dollars,” said Chiang. “A single website with accessible information will make sure that excessive pay is no longer able to escape public scrutiny and accountability.”

 

Many may ask, “Why did no one notice the financial misuse in Bell before now?”

 

This is where a vibrant community newspaper comes in. According to the U.S. Census, the median household income estimated for Bell in 2005 was $33,483. This figure leads me to believe that the citizens of Bell are mostly lower to middle income blue-collar workers.

 

Most blue-collar workers I know punch a clock at least eight hours a day, then go home and spend another eight hours taking care of family before falling into bed at night exhausted. This leaves little time for watching over elected officials and public employees.

 

It is unreasonable to expect any citizen to attend all city, county and state government public meetings. That is why newspapers — and other media sources — are so important. The number one job of a newspaper is to watchdog public officials and let the citizenry know when something isn’t right.

 

In a July 21 column in The Times, James Rainey laid out the state of newspaper coverage for small towns such as Bell. Rainey said The Times doesn’t have enough reporters to cover Los Angeles County’s 88 cities. And the smaller community newspapers that used to cover suburban communities have only skeletal staffs.

 

Rainey related a conversation he had with the Wave chain newspaper reporter assigned to cover Bell. This reporter told Rainey that he has been overseeing coverage of Bell city government since 1993, but had yet to attend a City Council meeting. That is ridiculous.

 

As staff cutbacks continue in newspapers across the state — and the country — more and more public officials will be able to use the neglect for nefarious purposes.

 

The Journal has been fortunate enough to be able to continue our in-depth coverage of Turlock city government. There is no way that our elected officials could get away with paying themselves 10 times the average salary without the Journal shouting about it from the rooftops and in 70-point headlines.

 

I also believe that our elected officials and public employees would be morally opposed to fleecing the taxpayers in the same way Bell’s leaders were apparently doing.

 But just in case…make sure to continue your support of the Journal and we will continue to keep a watchful eye on your elected officials.To contact Kristina Hacker, e-mail khacker@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2004.

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