Scott Martelle Contributor
(Aug. 16) — Call it the New Jersey of the West.
The scandals encompass city councils paying themselves and city officials exorbitant salaries, but also involve the alleged conversion of city funds for personal expenses, Third World-style elections and, in one case, a police department so bad that insurance companies jacked up the coverage rates, sparking a fiscal meltdown.
The most recent scandals involve three cities that form an arc of alleged corruption and bad government from the industrial enclave of Vernon through the essentially employee-less Maywood into immigrant-heavy and working-class Bell, where until recently city officials were raking in CEO-level salaries.
Municipal corruption is nothing new, of course, but the spate of problems in three adjoining cities has made this corner of Southern California a model of government gone wild, sparking state-level investigations and broad calls for reforms.
Experts say the failings are caused in part by a lack of oversight by their own residents, and the absence of a local newspaper to cover such political decisions as the Bell City Council approving a contract that gave its manager 12 percent annual pay raises, 28 weeks of vacation and sick leave, and an annual pension of more than half a million dollars.
The conditions in Bell surfaced publicly after the Los Angeles Times, which covers the sprawling metropolitan region, turned its spotlight on the tiny city amid reports of official investigations.
“There’s just nobody paying attention,” said Robert M. Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. “There’s no newspaper. The citizens are not paying that much attention, and when they tried to get some information the city stonewalled them. So the citizens have to hire a lawyer, and they do not have the resources to do that.”
Part of the problem with Bell and some of the other cities is how they are governed. The cities adopted local charters for their own governance in lightly attended elections that gave the city councils wide latitude in setting salaries and making other decisions, Stern said.
All three cities lie along the western bank of the Los Angeles River just a few miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. Bell, with a population of just under 40,000, is the largest. It is followed by Maywood, with just under 30,000 residents, which fired nearly all of its employees in a budget crunch spawned in part by lawsuits against its police department that made insurers balk at offering coverage to the city.
Vernon, the third city in the arc, is an oddity of a place. It exists to serve factories and warehouses and, with fewer than 100 residents, has been the personal fiefdom of the Malburg family for a half-century. But its longtime city manager, Bruce Malkenhorst Sr., was making more than $600,000 a year before he retired amid corruption investigations that eventually led to his indictment (he’s awaiting trial).
The problems seem to be part of the neighborhood. Earlier scandals in nearby South Gate, Compton, Lynwood and Bell Gardens led to a wave of criminal charges, some prison terms and voter revolts that ousted suspect local political figures.
The most recent scandal in Bell, in which top officials were forced to resign over contracts that likely made them the highest-paid municipal employees in the country, has sparked wide calls for reform and led good-government advocates in other areas to post salaries of top local government officials.
State Treasurer Dan Lockyer proposed an annual report by the state Public Employees Retirement System listing the top 100 salaries covered by the program, and Assemblyman Hector De La Torre introduced a law that would penalize city councils in so-called “charter” cities by laying a 50 percent tax on exorbitant salaries and curtailing the municipality’s ability to use state-recognized local development corporations for projects, which could make it harder for offending cities to attract commercial and industrial development.
De La Torre, who entered politics in 1997 as part of a reform movement in South Gate, said his bill would force municipalities to set pay levels openly through ordinances — which require several meetings and public hearings — or through a voter referendum.
“The whole point here is we want to make it visible to the voters,” De La Torre said. “We’re just saying that if you’re going to” raise salaries, “do it right.”
De La Torre’s state Assembly district covers most of the cities caught up in the recent corruption, which he believes has been hard to erase because of the nature of the communities and a local political culture in which such behavior isn’t seen as wrong.
“It’s a heavily working-class community in which the people are just trying to survive and trying to live their own lives, and monitoring their local government is not a priority,” he said. At the same time, Bell officials likely took their cues from neighboring Vernon, where he said corruption exists as “part of the original sin” from the city’s founding in 1905.
“There may be some bad habits that some of the elected officials pick up from each other,” De La Torre said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that Robert Rizzo, the city manager in Bell, was paying attention when Bruce Malkenhorst, the city manager in Vernon, was making gobs of money. I firmly believe that he went to his council in Bell and got them to match what Malkenhorst was making next door. … It’s a little bit of a daisy chain.”
David O. Friedrichs, a University of Scranton, Pa., professor who has studied corruption, believes local cultures often provide the structure for corruption — a sense of that’s just the way things operate. Similar problems have surfaced in northeastern Pennsylvania, he said, leading to indictments and convictions of political figures, including former National Football League lineman Greg Skrepenak, who was sentenced recently to up to 41 months in prison on corruption charges.
“People often see the answer as a kind of greed and personal lack of integrity, but that’s a one-dimensional answer,” said Friedrichs. “When it’s this pervasive and persistent, you have to look beyond the motivation factor into the factors that in effect create the whole structure, or the culture, that not only encourages this kind of activity but in many cases make it so ingrained that it almost becomes the natural thing.”
Friedrichs argued that corruption has been part of American culture from the beginning, and that fear of prosecution obviously has not been an effective deterrent. Greater citizen involvement, including formation of oversight committees on such issues as pay levels, could help, he said, by casting more eyes on the process.
“It’s a very difficult problem to address,” Friedrichs said. “It requires active, independent citizens groups that can provide truly independent oversight.”