For Whom the Bell Tolls

This is a warning to all local government officials throughout the state of California: Do not ask for whom the Bell tolls it tolls for thee.

The scandal surrounding Bell — a mostly low-income community of 40000 in Los Angeles County — where the city manager was taking down an eye-popping salary of almost $800000 a year and city council members were paid $100000 annually for part time work that consisted primarily of one meeting per week has outraged taxpayers not only in California but across the nation and throughout the world.

Almost daily there are new revelations of self-enrichment and misconduct by Bell officials. Turns out additional pay and benefits for the now-forced-out $800000 city manager brought the value of his annual compensation package to $1.6 million and now that he is retired he may draw nearly $30 million in pension benefits. Besides the astoundingly lavish pay the city was providing nearly a million dollars in loans to top officials. To get approval for these self-serving schemes it appears that city officials may have committed election fraud. To pay for all this booty the city imposed an accelerated program of parking enforcement — including impounding vehicles — as well as levied an illegal property tax.

What may be the most distressing is that city leaders were able to hide their compensation from public scrutiny for a number of years — even a recently appointed council member who was being paid one tenth of what his insider colleagues were receiving was unaware of the criminal behavior going on at city hall. Bell residents found out how badly they were being cheated only after a whistle-blower alerted the Los Angeles Times and reporters began an investigation.

It would be reassuring to know that the actions of Bell officials are the exception and not the rule. But regrettably that is not the case. A number of Bell’s neighboring cities have witnessed prosecutions for corruption over the last decade. For example the City of Maywood is now under investigation and further up the coast in Ventura County the FBI has just raided the Oxnard City Hall.

This level of public pillaging has been going on for decades. For example the County of Los Angeles itself engaged in massive pension spiking more than ten years ago when upper management wrongly started adding all kinds of perks to “retirement eligible compensation” a favorite method of officials to give themselves far more than that to which they would otherwise be entitled.

In reality the only difference between Bell and what is going on in dozens of other California cities is not the level of corruption but the extent of the greed.

While many local officials continue to serve honestly and in good faith all must recognize the heat is on. Bell is a game changer and taxpayers are not going to relent until there is complete transparency regarding the compensation for both the politicians and the government employees. And the transparency must include not just pay but all benefits including pensions.

Stonewalling will not be tolerated. Three times in the last 18 months Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association attorneys have prevailed in court over jurisdictions that refused to release information regarding retired government workers who are taking in more than $100000 annually in taxpayer-guaranteed pensions. The latest HJTA success occurred in Orange County and as a result residents now know that among those receiving six-figure pensions are former sheriff Mike Carona convicted of witness tampering and former treasurer Robert Citron convicted of skimming $89 million while leading the county into bankruptcy. They also know thanks to an analysis by the Orange County Register of the newly released pension information that four percent of retirees are receiving 13 percent of the pension payouts.

HJTA is filing another lawsuit this week against a large California city which has likewise fought tooth and nail to keep its citizens in the dark. This major coastal city will assuredly lose its case like all the others.

Additionally to guarantee that all government employee compensation information is always readily available to taxpayers HJTA will pursue legislation requiring that this information be made available on-line. Those who believe they should be able to hide their pay benefits and pensions from their employers the taxpayers can go to Bell.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.