After months of outrage directed at a city government that made this impoverished Southern California suburb the national poster child for municipal corruption, Bell residents have a chance on to begin anew.
Today 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 (D), is up for re-election.
While I applaud Mr. Velez for not taking such a huge salary himself I have to say he needs to be shown the friggin’ door for his silence alone. At any point he could have, and should have, blown the whistle on this systemic corruption.
Mayor Oscar Hernandez (D) and Councilman George Mirabal (D) were also up for re-election, but they decided not to run after the scandal broke. Councilman Luis Artiga (D), whose term expires in 2013, resigned after he and the others were arrested.
Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo (D), 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.
Activists in Bell say they expect a big turnout at the polls today. For months, many voters there have paid close attention as prosecutors filed corruption charge after charge.
Less than a month ago, people who arrived late to a candidates’ forum had to search for parking spaces. At least 200 people packed Bell City Hall for the event. Many candidates promised to create an open, transparent government, promote business and clean up Bell’s police department.
Miguel Sanchez, 34, was one of those candidates. The special ed teacher’s aide died last week after a bout with flu-like symptoms. He’d campaigned on a slate of candidates that called itself “Justice for Bell.”
Sanchez’s name is still on the ballot, and some people have said they’ll vote for him. The new City Council can arrange a special election to fill the seat if he wins.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that this notorious case has been fraught with rhetoric from both sides of the political spectrum.
Conservatives very correctly argued that the media as a whole was not mentioning the political affiliation of the disgraced politicians, they are all members of the Democratic party, while liberals were quick to point out that it hadn’t been 24 hours from the time new candidates were announced that “outside corporate money” started pouring in.
A retired Woodland Hills businessman said he donated more than $60,000 to a slate of City Council candidates in Bell to help elect a team of “honest” politicians in a city that has been battered by allegations of public corruption and graft.
But critics, including the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, contend that Gwilym McGrew is an outsider with no connection to the small, largely Latino city and that his donation represents “tea party money.”
McGrew denies he is a tea party member, though he said he does support the group’s position on healthcare. However, research shows that McGrew, who has helped finance other politicians around the country including several Republican Senate candidates. No records of McGrew supporting Democratic candidates have been found to this date.
McGrew said he became interested in Bell after reading about the high salaries of elected city leaders and administrators in the city last summer.
“I wanted honest candidates to have the opportunity to meet voters and get their message out,” he said.
I have to admit, I find it amusing whenever people attempt to draw a line form “corporate” to “honest”. Call me silly I guess.
The council election has been fractious, with candidates in agreement that the city is desperately in need of reform but at odds on how to achieve that.
McGrew’s donations went to a slate of three candidates who have been running under the banner Justice for Bell, which has advocated disbanding the police force to help the city steer of possible bankruptcy.
No matter which way this thing shakes out, you can be certain that whomever wins a seat on the new council will both be under the microscope and a breath of fresh air when compared to the foul stench that used to emanate from Bell’s City Hall.