Until a few weeks ago, most Americans knew almost nothing about the city of Bell, Calif.
That, apparently, is exactly how the people running the Bell city government wanted it.
However, the news that has come out of the city of about 37,000 just outside Los Angeles provides a vivid reminder of the need for citizens and the news media to keep a watchful eye on their government officials.
In the last several weeks, it has come to light that, in the last three years, the city of Bell overcharged its residents for property taxes to the tune of $3 million. During that time, Bell’s city manager was collecting a salary of almost $800,000 a year and Bell City Council members were being paid almost $100,000 a year. This in a town of working class people with a median income of less than $35,000. In the last few days, reports have surfaced that a special city program had loaned nearly $900,000 to the city manager, other city employees and at least two council members in the last several years.
The city manager has resigned and several council members have voluntarily reduced their salaries, but the story is far from over.
The action that opened the door to the salary abuse in Bell was an election in 2005 in which voters approved turning Bell into a “charter city,” removing it from certain state regulations and allowing city officials more leeway to increase their salaries. Out of 9,395 registered voters in Bell, fewer than 400 voted in the 2005 election. Now state officials are receiving reports from Bell residents who say city officials encouraged them to fill out absentee ballots and then collected the ballots and did who knows what with them.
If these reports are true, this is the kind of voter fraud that showing a photo ID at the polls won’t remedy. Officials collecting the ballots could pick out the ones that voted in their favor and discard the rest. True, the voters should have known better, but it’s easy to see why they would be fooled by people of authority who said they would deliver their votes.
The other piece of this outrage is that it took more than five years for reports of voter irregularities and unconscionable salaries to come to light. How could city officials cover their tracks for so long?
In a column last Sunday, Tom Graser, managing editor of the Marion (Ohio) Star, made a rather passionate case that the absence of a local newspaper in Bell, Calif., is a big part of the answer to that question. It wasn’t until reporters for the Los Angeles Times started asking questions about the fact that neighboring Maywood, Calif., had laid off most of its city staff and outsourced city services to Bell that the story started to unravel.
The Times reporters asked questions and, when they didn’t get answers, they filed official public information requests. They did their job. It’s a job that might have been accomplished much sooner if a local reporter had attended even a few Bell City Council meetings in the last five years. Without a local newspaper, Bell lacked an important government watchdog.
From time to time in this column we have noted how fortunate Lawrence is to have clean local government and law enforcement that operates in an ethical and above-board manner. We’d like to think they’d do that even if no one was watching, but, as the situation in Bell, Calif., illustrates, that isn’t always the case.