For Whom Does Bell Toll?

Pete Peterson
Dean, Pepperdine University Graduate School of Public Policy

The story of $800,000.00 per year city officials and $100,000.00 per year elected officials in the small Los Angeles-area city of Bell has become news from California to China. While legitimate scorn has been heaped on these 6-figure "public servants", and both the Los Angeles County DA’s office as well as the Attorney General, Jerry Brown, have ordered investigations into possible illegalities, initial reviews of how things got so bad in Bell reveal an inconvenient truth: it’s the citizens’ fault.

As the head of the LA district attorney’s Public Integrity Division, David Demerjian recently told the Los Angeles Times,?"We deal with the crime. What people consider corruption may not be a crime. I tell them, ‘Any dysfunction within the government has to be handled by you.’ The residents have a lot of power."??

It was that great chronicler of the American democratic republic, Alexis De Tocqueville, who once noted, "in a democracy, the people get the government they deserve", but reading some of the reports and opinion pieces about the current fiasco, one is left to wonder whether this long-accepted axiom is still true. Within days of the Los Angeles Time’s cover story blowing the lid off of Bell’s City Hall, defenders arose to protect the civic virtue of its residents for reasons both self-serving and condescending.

One angle pursued by several columnists has been to claim that the reason Bell’s skullduggery lasted so long (at least five years) is directly attributable to cutbacks in area news staffs (the LA Times’ newsroom in particular). Most notable in this effort was James Rainey in his recent Times’ piece. Defending Bell as the "scrappy little city in the gut of L.A. County", Raines conceives a cause and effect scenario that because of recent reporter layoffs, "the result is that officials in places like Bell can blithely go about their business…without anyone in the news business sniffing around for months, or even years."

Interestingly, later in Raines’ essay he notes that when he asked long-time local reporter for the Wave chain of newspapers, 73-year old Arnold Adler, about his opinions of the Bell mess, Adler confessed that he had never attended a Bell City Council meeting.  At points protecting the Times’ lack of coverage on this story while criticizing community news organizations, Raines presses on to lament, "Back in the days of more robust staffing at local newspapers, Bell officials might have gotten away with [only] a few years of unchecked pay raises."

What Raines and others attempting this defense seem to miss is that even when those news staffs were "more robust", corruption of the sort unfolding in Bell was still taking place.  As the Times’ own Hector Becerra points out. in his recent piece, municipal misconduct has been occurring in the Los Angeles area for decades  – even when there was fuller employment in area newsrooms. The story of what happened in Bell’s neighbor, South Gate, over a decade-long period from the early 90s to early 2000’s easily rivals Bell. That case was resolved when, as Hector Becerra at the Times describes it, "eventually residents, including the city’s large immigrant population, joined together and recalled Robles from office."

Another argument made excusing the disengagement of Bell’s citizens is just plain condescending: Bellians, who are largely of Latino roots, and generally poorer than the California average, are either too busy working multiple jobs supporting their families to participate in local government, or are culturally predisposed to disconnect from the public square. This mode of defense is best exemplified by the Times’ Steve Lopez in his recent essay, "The Bleeding Bell Blues." Describing "a particular strain of brazen malfeasance in south and southeast L.A. County", Lopez attributes this reality in part to the fact that these "cities have largely poor, immigrant populations that are too busy working to pay close attention to City Hall, which means they can be easily exploited." Lopez goes on to reason, "voter turnout is low, in part because many residents are undocumented and even many legal immigrants aren’t yet qualified to vote."

Later in Lopez’ column he, as others have, reasons that since many of these immigrants come from politically corrupted homelands, they expect some level of fraud when they arrive in America. Now let me see if I can understand the logic of this opinion: for the thousands of American citizens who reside in Bell – many first and second generation, who understand better than most the difference in the rule of law between this country and their nation of origin, who have walked the long, hard trail to citizenship – these are the ones who expect things to be the same? Nope, I just can’t buy that.

Lopez’ argument and others like it betray a certain "soft bigotry of low expectations", as our last president once said.

First, even understanding that there may be a sizable number of undocumented residents in cities like Bell, with a stated population of 36,000, the special election, which allowed the city to set its own pay for the city council back in 2005 was won on a vote count of 336 to 54.  A quick addition and division shows that about 1% of the total city population made the decision to put the municipality on its ruinous course; there’s low turnout, and then there’s civic malpractice. It stretches credulity to believe that 99% of the city’s residents could not have been more involved – either directly through the ballot box, or indirectly through reading local press – in Spanish or English. Certainly, Bell’s citizens are engaged now, as the hundreds protesting around City Hall demonstrate.

And as reports are beginning to highlight, there are and have been "heroes" in the Bell story. Area residents like local businessman and unsuccessful city council aspirant, Ali Saleh, who has founded the community organization Bell Association to Stop the Abuse (or "BASTA", which also means "enough" in Spanish) has been joined by others, including Cristina Garcia and Denisse Rodarte.  These and more will be needed to reform Bell city government. But, as has been the case with similar efforts in other cities, progress will be made most quickly when the reasons – or excuses in some cases – end, and the hard work of self-governance begins.

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