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A True Populist Revolt in Bell: And It's Not the Tea Partiers

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We haven't had much to cheer about lately, between the Gulf oil spill and the war in Afghanistan and the pink mama grizzlies rearing up. So I'd like to give a shout-out to the fine citizens of Bell, whose unlikely populist revolt against city leaders has been the feel-good story of the week. (Kudos to the Los Angeles Times too!)

But first a few salient facts:

Bell is a small working-class city about 10 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. It's also largely Hispanic and poor. Of its 40,000 residents, a quarter live below the poverty line. The median household income is $37,130--in short, we're not talking Hollywood and Brentwood here.

I've never been to Bell. It's one of those anonymous towns you fly by on the freeway when you're invariably going somewhere more fun like the retail outlets in Commerce or Disneyland. Clearly I've been missing out.

Another thing. Compared to the inane rantings of the Tea Partiers we've been hearing, the citizens of Bell actually had legitimate complaints.

Despite its poverty and a dire economy, Bell's top officials were paying themselves like bankers. In fact, some of the biggest municipal salaries in the nation. City Manager Robert "the rat" Rizzo, whose nickname needs no further explanation, was pulling in nearly $800,000 a year--twice what the President makes. Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia received more than $375,000 a year. Police Chief Randy Adams, who Rizzo hired last year to clean up the department, made $457,000--50 percent more than what LAPD Chief Charlie Beck makes to police our tiny city of 3 million. (An aside here: Adams' previous post was with the Glendale Police Department, an organization with its own fun history of police brutality and corruption.)

Rizzo's name has also surfaced in a lawsuit filed by a former Bell police sergeant involving everything from Hitler and sexual harassment of a city employee to voter fraud. The latter of which involves Bell police officers allegedly giving residents ballots and telling them how to vote in a 2009 city council election. And of casting ballots for dead people. Innovative! The L.A. County D.A.'s office has been looking into that since March.

We're not done yet. There are so many colorful players it's hard to keep track.

Then there is Mayor Oscar Hernandez, Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo and four of five city council members. All of whom were receiving nearly $100,000 a year for part-time work. Not bad, particularly since part of their salaries came from serving on boards or commissions that typically met during city council meetings. And that lasted only a few minutes.

As it happens, my favorite quote of the Bell scandal comes courtesy of council member Luis Artiga, a pastor. Artiga told the LA Times that when he saw his first paycheck, he believed it was "a miracle from God." If only!

Meanwhile, the city was cutting $9-an-hour jobs and police and park and recreation services.

I know what you're thinking. That's outrageous! How could they get away with this?

In November 2005, to skirt a state law limiting municipal officials' salaries, Bell held an election in which residents voted to become a charter city. Well, some residents anyway. Out of 10,000 registered voters, fewer than 400 cast ballots.

Last week, all this was revealed in a series of stories in the LA Times. When the citizens of Bell heard about the astronomical salaries, they were understandably surprised. And that's when things got interesting. Instead of acting like the poor meek immigrants that Rizzo and his cronies clearly thought they would, they launched a rebellion and demanded that their leaders resign.

Which is precisely what Rizzo, Spaccia and Adams did. Though they still could get hefty pensions. That is, if the dizzying number of investigations into the city's finances don't get in the way. Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, the democratic nominee for governor, though you'd hardly know it from his Zen campaign, emerged to say he had subpoenaed hundreds of documents in relation to the fat salaries.

Meanwhile, after a lively city council meeting this week, Bell's mayor promised to forgo his salary and council members agreed to a 90 percent pay cut. Meaning they'll now get what they deserve: $310.63 every two weeks.

Still, Bell's citizens didn't get everything they wanted. "I will resign my salary, but I will not resign to my position," said Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo, in another memorable quote. "I am here to stand by my people."

I'm sure the people were elated to hear that.

There is one good guy in this scandal. City Council member Lorenzo Velez, who had no idea his colleagues had such lavish salaries and convinced them that it might be wise to slash them. He also convinced the mayor to apologize. For this he was named one of CNN's "Intriguing People."

I'm sure there's more revelations to come. I do hope they get to the bottom of the Hitler thing.