Scandal in Bell, Calif., Teaches Us Painful, But Valuable, Lessons

Tuesday, 03 Aug 2010 04:41 PM

By Michael Levine

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The Los Angeles Times’ expose of greedy city officials in Bell, Calif., while the working class is struggling to make ends meet can teach us valuable, albeit painful, lessons.

The story, which the Times broke on July 15, chronicled one of the worst municipal scandals in recent memory. In the midst of the Great Recession, in a city where 1 in 4 residents lives below the poverty level, the Times revealed that:
  • City council members were making $100,000 a year for part-time work
  • A police chief was making $450,000 a year
  • And the cream of the crop? A city manager was making nearly $800,000 a year
Meanwhile, as Times columnist Steve Lopez noted, the primary industry in Bell is survival.

The fallout has been swift. Street demonstrations, resignations, and a state investigation. But what are the lessons of this? And how do we prevent this from happening again? A few painful lessons (learned the hard way):

People have the government that they deserve — Allegations of voter fraud and official corruption are no surprise in a city in which half of the residents are immigrants (legal and otherwise) and only 400 of whom voted in the last election. By comparison, the similarly sized affluent city of Manhattan Beach pays its city manager $257,000 a year, while Beverly Hills’ manager makes $275,000 annually running one of the wealthiest cities in America. The difference? Their residents would never allow such corruption to fester, but they would allow their cities to pay the higher-end salaries necessary to attract top talent without becoming excessive.

Sunlight is still the best disinfectant — Justice Louis Brandeis’ statement rang true. In the immediate aftermath of the scandal, several senior executives promptly resigned, while the city council agreed at its next meeting to cut its pay by 90 percent. Was that enough to satisfy residents’ bloodlust? Hell no, but when was the last time politicians ever voted themselves a pay cut? When they were under public pressure, that’s when.

Upfront costs are not total costs — The real cost of the Bell scandal is not the salaries themselves; it’s the pensions. If City Manager Richard Rizzo lives a normal lifespan, he easily could collect a pension of more than $26 million. Meanwhile, some residents have seen their property taxes double in recent years, the city has laid off staff left and right, and its longtime Chevy dealership recently went out of business.

We’re all residents of Bell — The costs of the scandal are borne by residents of all the other cities that pooled resources with Bell. Like many municipalities, Bell pools its financial resources with other similar-sized cities across the state, all of whom will have to pay a portion of Bell’s irresponsibility.

Leaders must set an example — The Bell scandal ultimately was a failure of public trust. Leaders have a responsibility to lead by example and inspire confidence rather than demand submission. When Bell’s mayor defended the salaries using the old “You get what you pay for,” residents interpreted it as arrogance rather than an honest defense of the city’s services.

As the Bell scandal unfolds, residents and investigators undoubtedly will find themselves asking: For exactly whom does Bell toll? Only time will tell.

Michael Levine, founder of Levine Communications Office in Los Angeles, is a media expert and author of 19 books, including “Guerrilla PR.”

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