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The Baltimore Sun

Around Town: Bell scandal hits home

On July 15, the Los Angeles Times published the first reports of the inflated salaries of the city of Bell employees.

On Aug. 4, Valley Sun reporter Megan O'Neil followed up on the bloated pensions for recently retired city of Bell employees. ("There may be some possibility that La Cañada Flintridge could be responsible for some small, tiny portion of former Bell employees' pension benefits, but it is so uncertain right now," said Daniel Jordan, our city's director of finance.)

The numbers are stunning. The Bell chief of police, Randy Adams, was paid $457,000, twice as much as President Obama. The Bell city manager, Frank Rizzo, was paid $737,637, more than four times the salary of La Cañada Flintridge City Manager Mark Alexander.

Last week, The Times reported new numbers. The city of Bell paid $422,707 to the director of administrative services, $421,402 to the director of general services, $273,542 to the director of community services and $295,627 to the business development coordinator.

A business development coordinator?

Bell is a blue-collar town that covers 2.5 square miles and has a population of 38,000 with a mean household income of $40,556. It is one-quarter the size of La Cañada Flintridge, has twice as many residents, with one-third of our income.

There are a lot of ways to report on this debacle. I could write a column about walking my dog (Miss Hepburn) down Foothill Boulevard with the ousted city manager rappelling from a helicopter. I could include news clippings (yellowed with age) from the 1920s, showing the relative costs of reptiles sold at "Snake Joe" Houtenbrink's snake farm. I could ask, "What the heck is a "business development coordinator" ($295,627)?

The scandal in Bell merits a more serious approach.

Unlike La Cañada Flintridge, which has trees and hiking trails and whose residents have the longest life expectancy in the region, the city of Bell does not provide a quality of life to its residents.

James Corcoran, a retired Bell police sergeant, filed a lawsuit against the city of Bell. He alleges that Bell police officers delivered absentee ballots to voters and instructed the voters on how to vote.

In 2005, only 400 people voted in the city council election in Bell. The part-time council members reportedly earned $100,000 per year.

I could write a column bemoaning the possible financial risk to La Cañada due to the bloated pensions under CalPERS and other retirement risk pools. I could put my dog, Miss Audrey Hepburn, in the column. I could make my argument with humor and sarcasm. If one month of pension salaries was paid in quarters, the coins would stretch the entire length of Gage, which is Bell's equivalent to Foothill Boulevard, but with more smog, more crime, less music and no parades. (1 mile = 63,360 inches.)

Last week, Bell's interim city manager, Pedro Carrillo, announced that the Bell city attorney would immediately launch a salary study to guarantee that salaries for city of Bell administrators are commensurate with experience and the area.

A salary study? I wonder how much the study will cost?

The Bell scandal poses a risk, but the risk is not financial.

Imagine you lived in Bell. Would you have the courage to stand up for the truth? To run for office? To file a lawsuit? To talk to the press?

Perhaps your son is 14. Your daughter is 12. You think to yourself, "What if my kinds break the rules? How will the police treat my children if I don't vote the way he tells me?"

When I imagine a country where the police tell us how to vote, I do not imagine the United States of America. I imagine a police state, like Iraq under Saddam Hussein, or Russia under Stalin.

The real risk of the scandal in Bell is not financial. The real risk is to the fabric of our democracy.

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