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Of, by and from the people, for the politicians

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Does your city manager make $800,000 a year? Before you answer, you might want to check. Maybe file an open records request with your city.

You might get the same run-around citizens in Bell, California, received, when they filed just such a request.

Robert Rizzo is — er, was — Bell’s City Manager. His salary from the city, before he resigned last week, came to a sum total of $784,637. (And no sense.)

When Nestor Valencia, an unsuccessful city council candidate, made an open records request earlier this year, he was informed the documents would cost $463. Valencia, clearly no politician, decided not to pay such a jacked-up price. He gave up.

Before that, Roger Ramirez asked Bell City Hall for salary information, including the city manager’s. He received a one-page memo from City Clerk Rebecca Valdez informing him that Rizzo’s annual salary was $185,736 and that city council members were paid $8,076.

But that wasn’t the full answer. City Manager Rizzo received more than four times that much in annual compensation from the city and four of the five city council members, who after all vote on these things, were bringing in over $100,000.

For part-time work!

When the Los Angeles Times reported the true, full salary figures for the city manager, the police chief ($475,000) and the assistant city manager ($375,000), the 36,000 citizens of Bell, California, erupted in anger.

Residents stormed council meetings calling the big pay packages “ridiculous” and demanding that these three top officials be let go. The rest of the state and nation, upon hearing the story, massively felt their pain. California Attorney General Jerry Brown, the Democratic candidate for governor, called the compensation “shocking and beyond belief.”

The whole question of whether salaries in this particular section of the stratosphere were permissible under state law is now being investigated. A law passed in 2005 limited what general law cities like Bell can pay.

But that same year the Bell City Council voted to put a measure on a special election ballot (at a cost of roughly $50,000) that would supposedly allow them to escape the state confines on lavish pay for public officials. The ballot information available to the public on the measure talked only about local control, making no mention of salaries.

With a special election turnout of fewer than 400 voters, the council’s measure passed. And the mischief mushroomed . . . until the public found out the truth.

There were cheers from Bell citizens when the council finally emerged from a closed-door meeting to announce the three top officials, together knocking down more than $1.6 million from the city with an annual budget of $15 million, would resign. But only seconds later, when questions rang out regarding the councillors’ own salaries and their behavior in legislating the gravy train, and were met with silence and stonewalling, there were shouts of “recall.”

One Bell resident bemoaned, “They get into power and talk to us like little kids and they think we’re ignorant, but we’re not.”

Characteristically, Bell’s mayor, Oscar Hernandez, first defended the salaries, saying, “Our streets are cleaner, we have lovely parks, better lighting throughout the area, our community is better. These things just don’t happen; they happen because he had a vision and made it happen.”

After feeling the singe of the public firestorm, the mayor offered the usual back-handed apology, noting that he and the council “recognize that today’s economic climate and the financial hardships so many families are suffering put our past compensation decisions in a new light.”

A new light?

This particular arrogance of power shows all the old classic signs of megalomania. In March of this year, City Manager Rizzo, 56, was charged with misdemeanor drunk driving. His blood-alcohol level was 0.28, more than three times the legal limit, after he allegedly crashed into someone’s mailbox. Rizzo pled not guilty and goes back to court in August.

His court file contains information from a representative of Chrysalis Care, who told the court: “Mr. Rizzo sought out my assistance immediately following his arrest for suspected DUI.” His therapy is “weekly two-hour sessions, covering chemical dependency education, relapse prevention, stress management, cognitive behavioral training and coaching in healthy coping strategies.”

And as one might expect, the city has been overspending, and not just on salaries. Per capita debt has more than tripled in the last five years (with completed financial reports), from $599 per person in 2004 to $1,972 per person in 2009.

One could argue that Bell is at least better run than neighboring cities. As I reported in my Common Sense e-letter recently, the city of Maywood, California, just recently contracted with Bell to provide many city services, including police protection. Contracting out to provide city services at better prices made a lot of sense to me. But now, admittedly, I wonder if perhaps Maywood chose the wrong vendor.

Many California cities are teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, as is the state of California (and perhaps your city and state, as well). A troubling part of the state’s financial disaster is the excessive pay, pension, healthcare and other benefits politicians have bestowed on themselves, cronies and politically powerful public employees. It is pervasive throughout the Golden State and the Golden Country.

Something must be done. Now, before the problem and the resultant financial repercussions become overwhelming.

But the key to “doing something” is for the people to be in a position to actually check the power of their governments. In Bell, California, they are. They have the power to recall their elected officials. They can initiate new reforms to block bad behavior by collecting petition signatures and putting reforms to a vote.

The people may not always check up on their government as they should. But the lesson from Bell is clear: Without citizen oversight and control of government, our so-called servants are ripping us off big-time.

It’s a message ringing around the globe.

Next Friday, July 30, hundreds of people from across the U.S. and throughout the world will converge on San Francisco for the U.S. Conference on Initiative & Referendum followed by the 2010 Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy. The goal of the gathering is to share ideas for making citizen democracy work better.

There will be ample disagreement, as speakers and attendees represent nearly every shade of the political spectrum. But there is widespread agreement on one thing: We can’t have good government without citizens in charge.

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