The something unsettling is the fact that we have reporters and the public arriving late to a scandal that was years in the making. Unless the council members violated open meeting law - and nothing I've seen indicates that they did - the outrageous salaries they pay themselves and their top staff were set at public meetings. In other words, all of this was done out in the open. But with no one was there to watch, the council had no reason to hide its shameful acts. The only reason any of this came to light is that the city of Maywood, another under-covered city (but not as under-covered as Bell) went bankrupt and asked Bell to take over its city services.
On the surface, the Bell scandal is one of outrageous salaries. City council members are taking home nearly $100,000 a year, with benefits, and the city manager is pulling in a salary that would make the president blush. From the Times story:
In addition to the $787,637 salary of Chief Administrative Officer Robert Rizzo, Bell pays Police Chief Randy Adams $457,000 a year, about 50% more than Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck or Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and more than double New York City's police commissioner. Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia makes $376,288 annually, more than most city managers.The city manager's salary started to get out of hand in the early- to mid-2000s. In five years, he's seen his earnings more than double, from about $300,000 in 2005 to $787,637 and climbing. This for a poor city of roughly 37,000 people. This is a story that could have been written in 2005, or 2006, or 2007, or...
The contraction in the news industry, especially in newspapers, is partly to blame for why poor Southern California cities get almost none of the coverage they deserve. The fact that they're poor cities full of immigrants who are unlikely to subscribe to an English-language newspaper doesn't help. The Times is the only newspaper now covering the salary scandal now, with some assistance from AP and Bloomberg. Hopefully editors at all of the area's newspapers - and online start-ups and citizen-journalism revolutionaries - are asking themselves how to do a responsible job covering all of Southern California's cities so the next big scoop isn't a Big Story simply because we let it slip past us for years.
*Here's a New York Times story on the Maywood take over that mentions nothing about the troubles in Bell.
**Times media columnist James Rainey laments the failure of the media (including the Times) to catch the Bell salary scandal before it grew to cartoonish proportions, and he owns up to the fact that the Times itself doesn't deploy the resources needed to watchdog cities in its own front yard. He also says the paper will investigate other cities in the area to see if they're similarly corrupt - they might start in neighboring Bell Gardens, where I'm told the city manager makes more $400,000 or more a year. UPDATE: A survey done by another publication put the city manager of Bell Gardens salary at $242,000.