Thursday, July 22, 2010

So That's Why We Had to Sell All the Library Books on EBay...

Just to the Southeast of Downtown LA there's a fairly small city making a lot of headlines lately. The City of Bell, CA, with a working-class immigrant-heavy population of about 40,000 suddenly popped up on the radar last week when it surfaced that they happened to have the highest paid city officials in the country. Turns out that through a series of shady deals, the City ended up paying its City Manager nearly $800,000 annually in salary, his second in command about $375,000, and the Police Chief $450,000. Keep in mind that even in the largest cities in the country, the people with those jobs make at most half that amount. And then we need to consider the city council, all of whom were making $100K for their part time gigs sitting on irrelevant commissions. Yikes.

Like most people, my initial thought was, "how the hell do I get a job there?" Second,of course, was the question of how this possibly could have happened. We only have to look back a few years to see where the system went off the rails. In 2005, the State legislature passed a new law that limited the amount city officials could be paid. Of course this only came on the heels (and because of) a similar scandal in another city called South Gate, which happens to border Bell on the southwest side (of course it does...).

So if you're a scumbag city official and want to avoid all the hassle of state caps, what do you do? You bring a special election that no one knows anything about and turn Bell into a "Charter City." Basically, this is just a mechanism to allow cities to skirt some state control. It sounds good in theory, but then this shit happens and no one likes it anymore. The special election took place after the State passed the pay cap law, but no one made the connection. Only about 400 people of the 40,000 citizens voted (most by absentee), and no one really thought about it again.

Until now.

Problem at this point is that it's tough to undo all that's happened. The money's gone, first and foremost. The whole "drag them out in the street and shoot them" (aka "Option Eastwood") probably is off the list too. They may try to shake down the city council and officials and force retirements, but hell, even if they force them out they're still eligible for sweet pensions (LA Times reported that the manager would be on a $600K annual pension). It'll be hard to show pure fraud or other illegal conduct because most of what they were doing would have been technically legal, albeit offensive to any moral standard. There probably isn't any kind of smoking gun recording of kickbacks. So they're probably just stuck holding the bag, trying to learn for the next time.

I suppose the moral of the story is to make sure we all know who's writing the checks in these local governments, since this isn't just big city stuff. Hell, the town manager in my town growing up did some time for embezzling funds. And second, the song and dance about local control and getting rid of all those oppressive state rules isn't all its cracked up to be. One way or another, everybody's got a hustle. The trick is figuring it out before it's too late.

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