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Legacy of Bell's corruption case: high tax rates, new civic engagement

Charlie Ortiz, owner of Charlie's Chop Shop in Bell, Calif., gives Joshua Bolin a haircut under the watchful eye of his father, Red Bolin, and a graffiti painting of Bruce Lee
Charlie Ortiz, owner of Charlie's Chop Shop in Bell, Calif., gives Joshua Bolin a haircut under the watchful eye of his father, Red Bolin, and a graffiti painting of Bruce Lee
Sharon McNary/KPCC
Charlie Ortiz, owner of Charlie's Chop Shop in Bell, Calif., gives Joshua Bolin a haircut under the watchful eye of his father, Red Bolin, and a graffiti painting of Bruce Lee
Bell Mayor Ali Saleh speaks to local business people at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Jan. 16, 2013.
Sharon McNary/KPCC

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Several former city council members from the city of Bell go on trial next week on charges of public corruption. They are accused of taking large city salaries for no work, attending phantom meetings, and receiving illegal loans from the city.

Since their arrests, and that of former City Manager Robert Rizzo and his assistant, new leaders have been trying to restructure the city. Residents and business owners say they are noticing a difference, although the pace of change has been slow.

RELATED: Jury selection begins in Bell corruption trial in Los Angeles Superior Court

Charlie Ortiz opened Charlie's Chop Shop in Bell a dozen years ago when the Rizzo regime was in full swing. Ortiz swiftly made professional and personal friends with members of the local police department, but suspected something might be wrong.

"I used to think your voice wasn't heard as loud, before," he says.

When Ortiz first came to town, he didn't really know anybody. But on a recent evening, years later, he was scheduled to appear before the Bell City Council. They wanted to thank him for giving free haircuts to local kids.

"Now it's like one of those old Western towns you see on TV where everybody knows each other," he said.

Rizzo and the old City Council tried to take advantage of Bell residents, Ortiz says.

"They think that the people of Bell don't know what's going on, because maybe some people are not legal or maybe because they don't speak English," Ortiz says. "And boy, were they wrong, huh?"

Now he has the ear of the mayor, literally. 

One of his hair clients is Ali Saleh, who runs a clothing shop in town and is in his second year as mayor. On a recent afternoon, Saleh is cutting the ceremonial ribbon for a new business that trains developmentally-disabled adults.

Saleh, the U.S.-born son of Lebanese immigrants, moves with ease between English and Spanish at such gatherings, where speeches are in both languages.

Saleh addresses the crowd of business people and Chamber of Commerce members  in English: "Any businesses that you guys may know, tell them that the city of Bell is a very friendly business community and we're delighted to have the new business here."

About 10 years ago, Saleh started attending City Council meetings. The sessions were mere minutes long, free of dissent, and attended by only a few people. It wasn't until Bell's salary scandal came to light that Saleh fully understood how bad things had gotten under Rizzo.

"He was a disgrace to local government to the city manager's position, what he did to our community was shameless," Saleh says.

The Rizzo legacy lives on in legal costs topping $1 million a year — about three times what a similar size city would normally have. Residents still pay one of the highest parcel tax rates in the county, after approving bonds that Rizzo and the old council placed on the ballot. One of the bond elections drew only about 300 voters in a city where more than 8,000 people are registered.

"I don't know if we can move on," Saleh says. "We can move on from the scandal, but we can't move on because we still have this property tax assessed on us for many years."

One of the biggest changes has been the awakening of Bell residents to civic life. City council meetings now stretch for hours and draw dozens of residents. They are live-streamed on the Internet, and city employee salaries, contracts and every check written out of the city treasury are available for public scrutiny at council meetings and online.

An early debate in the post-Rizzo years was whether Bell could afford to keep its police department. The police union is in negotiations with the city and Saleh says he's pressing for lower salaries and pensions. He attended local schools and recalls the pride of the city having its own department.

"At the moment, we are working to keep our police department," Saleh says. "That discussion has really been muted and we're moving forward and we're keeping 'em."

Councilman Nestor Valencia prefers to dissolve the Bell police and outsource public safety to the county sheriff's department or another agency. 

He said the city retains the Rizzo legacy in higher-than-sustainable salaries.

"What he did, what former council people did, and employees did and police did was created a very nice egg nest for themselves," Valencia says. "We're still paying high salaries."

Valencia believes Bell taxpayers cannot sustain the expense or pay down the bond debt incurred under the former council.

"Probably the biggest thing that I'd like to see is for those obligations to be mitigated, negotiated somehow," Valencia says. "If we have to, just say, 'We can't do it. BK the whole thing.'"

By "BK," he means he's willing to see the city go bankrupt in order to restructure the city's debts.

For now, Valencia represents a vocal minority on the council, and he's hopeful the March city council election brings a change.

"The good is that we still have an opportunity – elections," Valencia says. "Finally, there are six people running in this election cycle. I'm not up for election, but there are two who are up and four who are running for those seats and that's exactly what we wanted."

It's perhaps a sign of returning normalcy that one of the big controversies here these days is whether to remove speed bumps installed on many side streets.

Said Saleh: "There's a lot of speed bumps in the city of Bell."