For Whom The Bells Toll: The Brouhaha over Bell’s Modern-day Pirates

Bell is a typical city in Southern California that is blessed with seemingly endless summers, but its abundant dose of sunshine is not the reason Bell has been grabbing headlines recently. In the midst of this country’s economic crisis and the state’s looming bankruptcy, it appears that Bell is enjoying an economic bonanza of sorts, or at least some of its city officials are. Case in point: its chief of police Randy Adams is making almost $500,000 a year , twice as much as his counterpart in LAPD, and its city manager Robert Rizzo is making close to $800,000 a year, more than the President of the United States. Assistant city manager Angela Spaccia makes around $350,000 annually. In addition, several of their city council members make around $100K a year. Not bad for part-time employees whose work involves just meeting twice a month. Has the city of Bell stumbled upon an oil field or some other moneymaker perhaps, or have these city officials been robbing the people blind right under their very noses? Considering that the median household income in Bell is way below the national average, the latter explanation is obviously the reason for these officials’ prosperity. Amidst this extravagance, the city had cut its spending on police and community services and raised taxes on their unsuspecting residents due to supposed budget constraints. So what gives?

How was it possible for these local officials to have one of the highest salaries in the state and possibly the nation in a city where most residents tether on the poverty line? Wasn’t there a state law enacted in 2005 that was aimed at preventing exactly that? Turned out that the year that law passed, the Bell City Council held a special election with only one item on the ballot. It asked voters to approve a measure calling for Bell to convert to a “charter” city. Being a charter city would give Bell more autonomy. It would free them to implement programs without having to deal with all the bureaucratic red tape. The bad thing is, instead of coming up with programs that would ameliorate the living conditions of the residents, the city council treated this autonomy as a carte blanche for voting themselves hefty paychecks with even heftier yearly increases and cushy pensions thrown in for good measure. All with the apparent blessing of the residents. How did they get the residents to do that? Well, first, by not mentioning that being a charter city also meant that they were exempt from the salary cap, and second, by counting on people’s general apathy and non-involvement in politics to pass a measure that nobody paid attention to. Only 400 votes were cast in a population of around 40,000, and most of these were absentee votes. Although this was a very low turnout, the council only needed majority of those 400 to vote yes to pass the measure. Fait accompli.

This could have been just another story about government officials enriching themselves at the taxpayers’ expense and getting away with it, but thanks to LA Times journalists Jeff Gottlieb and Ruben Vives, the public got wind of it. The once apathetic constituents who did not bother to vote before were now galvanized into action. Hundreds poured out into the street in protest. The public outrage caused the above top three officials to resign in ignominy. Now the residents in Bell are demanding for the resignation of the other city council members as well. It was as if a sleeping giant just woke up, realized it had been wronged and is now on a rampage.

The salary scandal in Bell has opened a big ol’ can of worms. Among others, it was found out that these council officials had written in their own contracts that they could not be fired without just cause.If they got fired, the city would have to buy them out of their contract which would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. If they resigned, they would be eligible for cushy pensions and still be set for life. To add insult to injury, it was found out that to help pay for these cushy pensions, property taxes were raised, making the property taxes at Bell higher than those living in more affluent areas like Beverly Hills. There were also allegations by off-duty cops of ballot fraud. They claimed that they were forced to fill up the absentee ballots in favor of the measure. Another anomaly exposed involved above city officials being granted a total of almost a million dollars in loans by the city. A council member is also under investigation because his primary residence may not even be at Bell.

All this media coverage has a lot of officials jumping in on this political bandwagon. Candidates on both sides are trying to see how they can work the Bell angle to their advantage. The Attorney General has promised to look closely into this matter and is looking to file criminal charges. The State Controller has affirmed to uphold a transparency clause wherein an updated list of the salaries of municipal executives will be posted on its official website. This has also emboldened other journalists and community members themselves to look in their backyard to sniff around for other such anomalies.

I must admit that, like most people. I have been disenfranchised by politics. I have been burned one too many times by politicians who, as soon as they get elected, renege on their campaign promises and turn out to be as crooked as the people they replaced. I have seen people put up on pedestals only to find their feet not only made of clay, but knee-deep in dung, muck and filth. Yet hope springs eternal, that for the countless who are corrupt, there are a handful who have resolved to abide by their principles and work for their ideals. Hope springs eternal that if these public servants get just compensation, and if we institute as well enforce moral and legal checks and balances, they will rise up to the challenge and prove themselves worthy. Hope springs eternal that with a more vigilant media, a more involved public and more just legal system, changes will come. I am not that naive to think that a utopian state is possible in this day and age, but to give up hoping and trying would be like giving up on society and mankind as a whole. Democracy does have its flaws, but I shudder to think of the alternative.

I think there is a lesson to be gleaned from all this. Ignorance does not necessarily spell bliss, and apathy can indeed spell disaster. Modern-day pirates thrive when people don’t care enough to be informed and involved, and when people develop an attitude of resignation towards the status quo. Without public concern, a militant media watchdog and legislative safeguards, the graft and corruption in Bell can easily become the norm instead of the exception. Although it may seem that as ordinary citizens we may not be able to do much, we can actually help in our little way. We may not necessarily be the intrepid reporter breaking the news, but we can make sure that the attention does not die down before any real changes can be made. Modern-day pirates of Bell and their ilk should be weeded out, exposed and hounded. They should be made to pay in the courts of law, the podium of public opinion and the polls of political arenas. We might never make the world a better place with one sweeping, grand gesture. It takes putting up the right person here and bringing down the wrong ones there. It involves keeping tab of events both local and global, and voicing out and springing to action as necessary. The world will never be completely perfect, but at least nobody should be able to say we didn’t try.

The tolling of the bells has been meant to symbolize the demise of someone or something. With people everywhere more cognizant about the affairs of the state and more vigilant about their rights, the bells should hopefully toll for all these modern-day pirates who have freely helped themselves to their elected constituents’ coffers. Maybe someday there will come a time when we can tell these shameless bandits “Ask not for whom the bells toll. They toll for thee.”

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8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. balot freires
    Sep 01, 2010 @ 20:25:47

    i’ve actually heard this over the news a few months back,totally aghast at the reality that it is going on anywhere,maybe more discreet lang dire.I guess, it is a confirmation that politics is indeed dirty and in bisaya,puli-puli tikas.

    Reply

    • emmblu
      Sep 02, 2010 @ 08:19:04

      “Graft and corruption” is everywhere, but it doesn’t have to be a way of life. Southeast Asian nations that have strengthened their moral fiber and straightened their political system have developed at an astronomical rate, leaving morally and politically corrupt Philippines in the dust. Yet I believe there is still hope. The fact that the Bell incident triggered a chain reaction inc the resignation of the top three officials is proof enough. We should harness the power of our votes and voices to continue to push for change for a better future not just for us but the generations to come.

      Reply

  2. Harold Cabahug
    Sep 02, 2010 @ 19:49:57

    I think resignation is not enough. These modern-day pirates should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. In some countries, cutting fingers / hands or public flogging are not unheard of. Para mu tagam bah, unya wala nay mosunod!!! 🙂

    [i know, i know, this is the militant me talking]

    Reply

    • emmblu
      Sep 02, 2010 @ 20:34:03

      Kadaghang pungkol maglakawlakaw sa dan kung ikaw lawmaker, Dong. Unsaon pag-hands up? Unsaon pag-fingerprint? Mawad-an customer ang mga ring ug nail polish makers! :}

      Reply

  3. Harold Cabahug
    Sep 04, 2010 @ 07:22:55

    Mao gyud! Kung mahutdan na ug digits to cut off, we can go for the other, more important appendages… Siyaro!! 😀

    Reply

  4. Bobimzzz
    Sep 20, 2010 @ 20:19:57

    Ging, this is nice…only had the chance to read it and your writing talents never a bullitin. Yes, after unearthing the Bell scandal and the neighboring little city of Vernon, just put other neighboring cities on notice. Goes to show that modus operanda like this goes beyond the Philippine shores but could also be right before the wandering eyes of idealistic americans!

    Reply

  5. emmblu
    Sep 20, 2010 @ 21:37:20

    You know, Kuya Bimz, if we turn a deaf ear and close our eyes to things that are happening around us, if we read about stuff in the newspaper and continue to be nonchalant about them, if we don’t get outraged enough to cause things to change, then we are accomplices in the miscarriage of justice. I wish there was a website where all these wrongdoings will be compiled and we can look up politicians’/ candidates’ profile. Then we can make a more informed decision about them and hit them where they hurt the most: their numbers/votes.
    Btw, as a footnote to this, the residents of Bell are getting a refund of the property tax surplus that they have been paying all these years.

    Reply

  6. Madison Blare cameru
    Jan 24, 2012 @ 05:36:42

    The people I really feel sorry for are the ones that continue to believe that somehow the government is going to fix all of this.

    Reply

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