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90201: Bell—A City That Can't Shake Its Corrupt Reputation

Benjamin Gottlieb |
February 23, 2012 | 12:24 a.m. PST

Special Project Reporter

This story is part of a Neon Tommy Special Report that follows 2012 campaign money in L.A.  >>>


No doubt a tangible correlation exists between political campaign donations and a neighborhood’s average income – the higher the annual income per person, the higher the campaign contributions.

But when you have a former city manager like Robert Rizzo who raked in a salary double that of the president of the United States, it’s not hard to understand why the city of Bell has a noticeable lack of faith in their politicians.

Scarred by years of corruption, political contributions from Bell and its surrounding communities have tapered off significantly in 2012 – a grand total of $6,679 as of March 2012 have been donated thus far to various political campaigns, according to OpenSecrets.org.

A typical household in the City of Bell, Los Angeles (Creative Commons).
A typical household in the City of Bell, Los Angeles (Creative Commons).

To put these figures in perspective, the $6,679 in political contributions from the Bell/Maywood area is about one-fourth of the political donations collected from the average zip code.

It is also two-thirds as much as the 2008 elections and one-fifth as much as was raised for the 2004 election.

The scandal has, understandably so, placed Bell's current city officials on high alert. Questions concerning the state of city governance, strides since the highly publicized corruption and even one's work environment are all consistently deflected and passed along the chain of command.

"I'm very pleased with the staff here, but that's all I'm going to say," said Pat Healy, Bell's interim city clerk. "I'd rather not speak on the matter."

Rather not or knows better? The city government's attitude toward transparency may, in fact, be directly coorelated with the marked decrease in campaign contributions, said Jaime Regalado, a political analyst at CSU Los Angeles. But Regalado said other factors dampen campaign donations in southeast Los Angeles.

"Some fear government because to them, that means the INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service]… it's perhaps that they fear any government involvement could spell deportation if they are undocumented," Regalado said. 

"It's also that L.A.'s immigration core, particularly from Central America, don't have experience being actively engaged in government," he added.

Outside of the political firestorm, the city of Bell fits the aesthetic of a working-class Los Angeles neighborhood. Nestled along the west bank of the Los Angeles River, Bell is home to roughly 35,000 people – a large Latino majority - maintains its own police department and has a median household income of just under $40,000 annually.

It is also one of California’s 112 charter cities, a list that includes the bourgeois bouroughs of Newport Beach and Irvine.


But unlike other cities, Bell adopted its charter status in a 2005 special election under a cloak of secrecy. Less than 400 people came out to vote in that election, as documented by the 2010 investigative report by Jeff Gottlieb and Ruben Vives of the Los Angeles Times.

For cities with a voting public in tune with local politics, charters can be a desirable alternative to state-organized representation. Instead of having a five-member city council, charter cities can implore the “city manager” or “strong mayor” style of governance.

In the case of Bell, Rizzo used the special election for his own personal gain. And along with his assistant, Rizzo exploited the city's charter system for seven years by boosting pensions, creating fake contracts and increasing benefits as city manager.

Interim members of Bell's government, like city manager Arne Croce, are trying to see the glass as half-full. In his seven months in office, Croce said he’s witnessed a Bell community with a renewed sense of fervor for local politics.

“What I see here is a city council and a community in transition,” Croce said. “Now, we have thrown those rascals out, but we’ve got a lot of work still to do.” 

Political contributions for zip code 90201 (Courtesy of OpenSecrets.org, The Center For Responsive Politics).
Political contributions for zip code 90201 (Courtesy of OpenSecrets.org, The Center For Responsive Politics).

Tom Hogan-Esch, a professor of political science at CSU Northridge, sees some encouraging signs in the wake of Bell's now-infamous government scandal.

"One of the positives to come out of that 2010 scandal is an increased awareness for the need to be engaged in local government," said Hogan-Esch, who has authored a number of articles on Bell. "And that there is a price to paid if voters don’t pay attention to what's going on."

It's true that Bell could, one day, become a bastion of political discource in Los Angeles. Today, however, Bell remains a city disheartened by local politics, traumatized still by a scandal fit for Hollywood. For the 2012 elections, political candidates will undoubtedly look elsewhere for financial support for their campaigns.

For a timeline of the City of Bell scandal, click here.


To reach Benjamin Gottlieb, click here.

Follow him on Twitter @benjamin_max.





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