After months of outrage directed at a city government that made this modest Southern California suburb the national poster child for municipal corruption, Bell residents have a chance on Tuesday to begin anew.
That's when they'll go to the polls to elect a new city council, replacing one whose members are facing dozens of charges of fraud and misappropriation of public funds. Authorities say they and other current and former city officials stole more than $5.5 million from Bell, using it to pay themselves enormous salaries.
When residents learned last summer that most of their part-time city council members were making $100,000 a year and giving annual salary and compensation packages of hundreds of thousands to a handful of other employees, they immediately launched a recall campaign.
Now, with Tuesday's election finally here, they have 16 candidates from which to choose. One is the only incumbent untouched by the scandal; the others include people of such varied backgrounds as attorney, high school English teacher, construction contractor, truck driver, social worker, retired baker and environmental activist.
"This really did bring our community together. Now I'm just hoping we pick the right people," said longtime resident Alfred Areyan.
The recall targeted only four of the council's five members, but all five seats are in play because the only council member who didn't take a big salary, Lorenzo Velez, is up for re-election.
Mayor Oscar Hernandez and Councilman George Mirabal were also up for re-election, but they decided not to run after the scandal broke. Councilman Luis Artiga, whose term expires in 2013, resigned after he and the others were arrested.
Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo, whose term also expires in 2013, chose to remain in office and is fighting the recall.
Although the recall initially united thousands in this city where one in six people live in poverty, alliances have seriously frayed in recent weeks as candidates have hurled increasingly vitriolic charges at one another.
Meanwhile, one of the front-runners, Miguel Sanchez, died last week at age 34. Friends said he had complained of flulike symptoms before being hospitalized Friday.
His name will remain on the ballot to replace Jacobo if she is recalled. If he wins, the new city council must decide whether to appoint a successor or schedule another election to replace him.
Exactly when that new council can be sworn in is still up in the air.
County officials expect to have election results certified by March 22. Under ordinary circumstances, the old council would then call a meeting to swear in the new council. But last month a judge ordered Jacobo, Hernandez and Mirabal to stay at least 100 yards from City Hall.
"There are some challenges with that, but we're slogging through it," interim City Attorney Jamie Casso said this week. "We think we'll come up with an option or two this week."