Impoverished California town pays city manager over $800,000 a year
A month ago, Raw Story reported that Maywood, California was about to lay off all its city employees, following “years of financial abuse and corruption” by its city council, and outsource most municipal services to the neighboring town of Bell.
But it appears that Bell is no shining example of fiscal management either. During a closed meeting late Thursday night, the city manager, assistant city manager, and police chief all resigned, following a public outcry over their combined annual salaries of $1.6 million. Many residents would like to see most members of the city council resign, as well.
California Attorney General Jerry Brown issued a statement saying, “These outrageous salaries in Bell are shocking and beyond belief.” Bell, like Maywood, is a small and poverty-stricken suburb of Los Angeles, with a heavily Hispanic population of just 37,000 residents.
The Los Angeles Times reports, “The emergency meeting followed several days of negotiations between the officials and attorneys for the city to reach deals. The crowd began shouting when Councilman Lorenzo Velez’s request to open the meeting to the public was overruled by the city attorney, who said the city would be at legal risk if it discussed personnel matters in public. Emotions ran so high that the council chamber was briefly cleared.”
Local residents then waited outside from 4:30 until midnight to learn the results of the meeting. “The crowd erupted in applause after the announcement but immediately yelled out questions about what would happen to the council members. Four of the five are paid close to $100,000 annually. When their questions were not answered, they shouted, ‘Recall!'”
A few hours later, the Bell Association to Stop the Abuse — whose acronym, BASTA, is Spanish for “enough” — called upon Mayor Oscar Hernandez and all but one of the city council members to step down. Council member Lorenzo Velez, who was appointed and not elected, earns only $8,076, and BASTA spokesman Ali Saleh said, “We support his staying if he’s willing to help us fight the corruption.”
Mayor Hernandez, however, charged the Los Angeles Times — which set off the confrontation when it revealed last week that Bell officials were paid “some of the highest municipal wages in the country” — with having a “skewed view of the facts.”
Hernandez pointed proudly to Bell’s “clean streets, refurbished parks and numerous programs for people of all ages” and said that over the last 17 years, Chief Administrative Officer Robert Rizzo had turned the city around from being $13 million in debt to having a budget surplus of $22.7 million.
In September 2005, California passed a law limiting the pay of city council members in small towns like Bell to about $400 a month, or slightly more if they also serve on city commissions. Two months later, Bell held “a little-noticed special election that attracted fewer than 400 voters” and declared itself a charter city, making it eligible to bypass the law.
Rizzo’s current salary is $787,637 a year, and the Times notes that he owns a “sprawling horse ranch .. valued at more than $1 million” and was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving this past March after he crashed into a neighbor’s mailbox. When he steps down at the end of August, he will be entitled to a state pension of over $650,000 a year for life, making him the highest-paid retiree in the state system.
Police Chief Randy Adams makes $457,000 a year — 50% more than the police chief of Los Angeles — and could receive an annual pension of $411,000. Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia, who currently earns $376,288, could receive $250,000 a year when she reaches the age of 55.
The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office is now looking into whether any state laws have been violated. Attorney General Jerry Brown — who is currently the Democratic candidate for governor — is also investigating, as is the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (Calpers), which would be responsible for the pension payments.