Watchdogs needed for cities like Bell

Local government corruption could be prevented if the public paid more attention to the structure and activities of their city councils, Assemblyman Hector De la Torre said at a panel discussion at USC earlier this month.

Residents of Bell were appalled when City Council members were recently charged with public corruption in a scandal uncovered by the Los Angeles Times. Charges include misappropriation of public funds, falsification of documents and conflict of interest. The investigation revealed that Bell’s city manager was being paid twice the salary of the President of the United states, while other members of the council were earning hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

Corruption in Bell and other charter cities can be attributed to a lack of government transparency and accountability, panelist said at a discussion held Oct. 4 at the University of Southern California.

“You have city managers who get housing allowances, one-and-a-half million dollars to buy a house,” said De la Torre. “Some of these practices are happening up and down the state of California.”

With a declining number of local news publications and fewer reporters from larger newspapers covering city councils, residents have lost access to important information about local government affairs.

There is usually one reporter assigned to cover 28 cities said Bob Stern president, of the Center for Governmental Studies. In a telephone interview, he said more reporters focusing on government affairs would make a huge difference in smaller cities like Bell.

Panelists at the conference agreed.

“If you look at the number of reporters that city newspapers assigned to state governance today compared to 20 years ago, it’s traumatically reduced,” said De la Torre.

Panelists at the conference said most residents in Bell are working-class citizens who are struggling to make a living and do not have the time or resources to act as watchdogs.

The City Council of Bell took advantage of residents and their inability to monitor the city council, paying themselves huge salaries, with the city manager making nearly $800,000 a year.

Stern said that citizens in Bell faced an even bigger challenge than most residents of smaller cities because their City Council had often refused to release information upon request.

Panelists agreed that the members of Bell’s City Council acted without transparency, meeting secretly and withholding official government records from the public.

Times reporter Jeff Gottlieb said that he and his colleague Ruben Vives had to threaten to sue Bell to release documents of official salaries and City Council minutes.

Under the California Public Records Act, local government agencies are required to provide anyone who asks for information or documentation about their actions and spending. Most government records are considered public.

Gottlieb said the information he and his colleague received could have been sought by anyone.

“We don’t get documents that the average citizen can’t get,” Gottlieb said.

The Bell case is an issue less about corruption and more about education said De la Torre. There are always “bad people” eager to take advantage of a public that does not understand the structure, context or language of government he said.

There are many lessons to be learned from what happened in Bell said De la Torre. Among them, he said, that it’s important that this type of corruption is not seen as an isolated incident because it is a problem that other regions could face too.

De la Torre asked that the public not condemn all government officials and institutions.

“Trust but verify,” said De la Torre.

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