Three high-paid administrators are gone. Now, activists want most of the City Council replaced
Three administrators whose huge salaries sparked outrage in this small blue-collar suburb of Los Angeles have agreed to resign, the City Council said Friday.
Council members emerged from an hours-long closed session at midnight Friday and announced that they'd accepted the resignations of Chief Administrative Officer Robert Rizzo, Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia and Police Chief Randy Adams.
Hours after the meeting, Mayor Oscar Hernandez released a letter in which he defended the compensation. He also attacked the newspaper that first reported about the sky-high salaries.
"Unlike the skewed view of the facts, the Los Angeles Times presented to advance the paper's own agenda, a look at the big picture of city compensation shows that salaries of the City Manager and other top city staff have been in line with similar positions over the period of their tenure," Hernandez said in the letter.
And here are the facts -- Rizzo earns $787,637 a year -- nearly twice the pay of President Barack Obama -- for overseeing one of the poorest towns in Los Angeles County.
Spaccia makes $376,288 a year, and Police Chief Randy Adams' annual salary of $457,000 is 50 percent more than that of Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck.
Rizzo was hired at an annual salary of $72,000 a year in 1993, and the council rapidly increased that amount over the years. His most recent raise boosted his salary more than $84,000 a year.
" All right, somebody wasn't paying attention to that," said Luis Artiga, who joined the council a little more than a year ago. " But we are acting on that today."
Adams was recently hired at a relatively high salary, while Spaccia was paid $102,310 when she was hired in 2003 and received hefty raises since then, Artiga said.
All three officials under question have contracts that protect them from being fired without cause. If they refuse to quit, the city might have to shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy out their contracts.
Revelations about the pay in Bell has sparked anger in the city of fewer than 40,000 residents. Census figures from 2008 show 17 percent of the population lives in poverty.
Enraged residents have staged protests demanding the firings and started a recall campaign against some council members.
" Woo-hoo, the salaries. Wow. What can I say? I think that's unbelievable," Christina Caldera, a 20-year resident of the city, said as she stood in line at a food bank.
Caldera, who is struggling after recently losing her job as a drug and alcohol counselor, said she generally was satisfied with the way the city was being run but felt high-paid officials should take a pay cut.
"What are they doing with all that money?" she asked. " Maybe they could put it into more jobs for other people."
Attempts to leave messages with city representatives seeking comment from Rizzo and Spaccia failed because their voicemails were full. A message left for Adams was not immediately returned.
The council members are paid well themselves -- four of the five members, including Artiga, each make about $100,000 a year for the part-time work.
How is that possible? Take a little-noticed ballot measure that provides a major loophole, add poor election turnout, and you have the answer.
A state law enacted in 2005 limits the pay of council members in "general law" cities, a category that includes most cities in Southern California. That law was passed in reaction to the high salaries that leaders in South Gate had bestowed on themselves earlier in the decade.
But the year that law passed, the Bell City Council authorized a special election with only one item on the ballot -- a measure calling for Bell to convert to a "charter" city. The move was billed as one that would give the city more local control. The ballot language included no mention of the effect the change would have on council members' salaries.
Fewer than 400 people showed up to vote in that election.
The county district attorney's office is investigating to determine if the council's high salaries violate any state laws.
The City Council also intends to review city salaries, including those of its own members, according to Artiga and Mayor Oscar Hernandez.
"We are going to analyze all the city payrolls and possibly will revise all the salaries of the city," Artiga said.
However, both men said they considered the City Council pay to be justified.
"We work a lot. I work with my community every day," the mayor said, as he shook hands with and embraced people leaving the food bank Thursday.
Council members are on call around the clock, and it is not uncommon for them to take calls in the middle of the night from people reporting problems with city services, Artiga said.
Councilman Lorenzo Velez, who makes only $8,000 per year, has called on the council to get salaries in line. Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo told the Times Velez makes less because he was appointed, not elected.
Though many residents are poor, Hernandez said they live in a city they can be proud of, one with a $22.7 million budget surplus, clean streets, refurbished parks and numerous programs for people of all ages. He pointed proudly down a street to a park filled with new exercise equipment.
When Rizzo arrived 17 years ago, Hernandez said, the city was $13 million in debt and on the verge of bankruptcy. Rizzo obtained government grants to aid the city, the mayor said.
Rizzo was arrested near his home in Huntington Beach in March and charged with misdemeanor drunken driving. At right, his mugshot.
He pleaded not guilty and is due back in court for an Aug. 5 hearing, said Farrah Emami, a spokeswoman for the Orange County district attorney's office.
The Los Angeles Times reported the salaries last week, prompting a large protest Monday at City Hall in which residents shouted and demanded that Rizzo be fired.
Rizzo would be entitled to a state pension of more than $650,000 a year for life, according to calculations made by the Times. That would make Rizzo, 56, the highest-paid retiree in the state pension system. Adams could get more than $411,000. Spaccia, 51, could be eligible for as much as $250,000 a year when she reaches 55, though the figure is less precise than for the other two officials, the Times said.
California Attorney General Jerry Brown said his office has launched an investigation in conjunction with the state's public employee retirement agency into pension and related benefits for Bell's civic leaders.