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Jonathan Kraut: Bell sounds alarm for all

Democratic Voices

Posted: August 31, 2010 4:55 a.m.
Updated: August 31, 2010 4:55 a.m.

The recent scandalous activities uncovered in the city of Bell should sound an alarm for us all. Four of the five members of the Bell City Council - which includes the mayor - and city manager concocted a deceptive scheme to reward themselves with extravagant salaries, loans from the city and other secret benefits at taxpayer expense.

The Signal published a report that "The city manager collected $787,637, far and away the highest compensation for the post statewide." To put this in perspective, the president of the United States earns $400,000 to manage the nation and guide the free world. Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo had to care for about 36,000 residents.

The Bell city manager has since been fired and has lost his annual salary. But if his retirement plan is unchallenged, Rizzo will draw an immense pension that is around $650,000, making him the highest-paid pensioner in California.

Days ago, the Los Angeles Times reported that an audit of city property taxes revealed that Bell land owners were also charged taxes above the legal limit: "The city of Bell illegally raised its property taxes in 2007 and must immediately give up $2.9 million it has collected since then, state Controller John Chiang said."

This, plain and simple, was a shakedown. Carefully crafted by government itself, the Bell City Council and city manager lined their own pockets with outrageous salaries. Bell's policies of towing vehicles, skimming city revenues, diverting taxes and gutting the local departments - including the Bell police - was self-serving and shameful.

Santa Clarita's five council members each earn $18,860 each year for their part-time service. Santa Clarita City Manager Ken Pulskamp is paid $241,633. These rates are definitely in line with other local cities. I am glad that our city came forth immediately with openness to damper any concerns that our City Council was out of order.

While I may disagree about the policies our City Council selects from time to time, we have not observed our council involved in such egregious acts of fraud or deception. But the message Bell has for all of us is that any political entity, without independent review, can position itself to ingratiate insiders at taxpayers' expense.

The real problem here is the way in which local government exists in the land of the free. Elected officials set salaries and benefits for key appointees. These key appointees, in turn, campaign privately and sometimes publically for the very same officials, who in kind increase appointees' salaries upon re-election.

College of the Canyons is a case in point. Dr. Dianne G. Van Hook, chancellor of the Santa Clarita Community College District and president of COC, earns more than a quarter-million dollars per year last I checked. This salary is set by the district Board of Trustees. Van Hook promotes and plays a hand in the re-election of the very incumbents who continue to approve her large salary.

While I can say that Van Hook is certainly one of the most competent educators I have ever known, there is an inherent ethics concern regarding her political support of those who set her salary. Without independent review to be sure her wages are fair, how can we be sure that one day another Bell issue will not arise?

What if new City Council members or a sudden change in medication for some existing electeds lead to secret pay increases for themselves? Without ethics and salary audits, this form of government racketeering may happen right here.

At the Aug. 28, 2007, City Council meeting, I was proud to read to the council a resolution passed by the Democratic Club of the Santa Clarita Valley. We asked that the city consider a code of ethics to create an independent ethics commission.

I wrote about this issue in a Signal column titled "Mr. Ferry, Please Be Frank" on Sept. 11, 2007. Democrats simply called for an independent third-party review of city policies, procedures and compensation. These calls are still unheeded.

The problem in Bell is not the dishonesty of the council or city managers. As we know, shady characters are elected all the time. But I contend that there are two villains here: A lack of independent oversight, and the way appointed and elected officials scrub each other's backs.

I believe it is time for our City Council and the COC Board of Trustees to hear Bell's warning and adopt independent, third-party audits to be sure our officials' pay and dealings are fair and above board. No honest person would have anything to fear.

Jonathan Kraut serves in the Democratic Club of the SCV, on the SCV Human Relations Forum and the SCV Interfaith Council. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal or other organizations. "Democratic Voices" appears Tuesdays and rotates among local Democrats.


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