Corruption in Paradise

Have you heard of the city of Bell? I didn’t think so. It’s one of the dozens of little municipalities that surround Los Angeles, and it’s now on the surprisingly large list of such municipalities that are in trouble. In this case, it’s because of an LA Times story revealing that the City Manager earns about $800,000, his assistant earns $400,000, the police chief makes nearly half a million dollars, and the city council members pay themselves $100,000 per year. All for a town with a population under 40,000.

Surprisingly, this is not actually all that surprising. The variety of corruption varies from town to town around LA, but there’s a helluva lot of it. And Bell’s is typical, the result of a small cadre of insiders who manage to gain control of the municipal apparatus and basically run it as their own little fiefdom. But the question is, have they actually done anything illegal? California law limits the pay of city councilmembers, but they got around that via a technicality: paying themselves not for being on the council, but for being on a variety of planning boards — all of which met infrequently and consisted solely of city councilmembers. The city manager and the police chief got loads of cash, but there’s nothing illegal there. The city council voted to pay it to them fair and square.

But it’s even worse than that! Here’s the latest:

Bell City Council members are seeking the resignations of the city manager and two other top officials amid growing public outcry over salaries that appear to be among the highest in the nation, according to three sources close to the discussions.

Resigning would make City Manager Robert Rizzo, Police Chief Randy Adams and Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia eligible for lucrative pensions. But the three also have contracts that protect them from being fired without cause.

As a result, unless they agree to resign, the city would face the prospect of buying out their contracts, which could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional payments.

Isn’t that great? These guys connive with the city council to get paid astronomical salaries, and when the gravy train finally ends they have (enforceable!) contracts that pay them big bucks if they’re fired without cause. And since pensions are based on salary levels, they’re entitled to astronomical pensions even if they do leave.

All I can say is: there just has to be something illegal here. I don’t know what, but is it really possible that such an obvious abuse of the public trust can be legal? I know the answer to this: yes, it’s possible. But in practice, I sure hope someone manages to figure out how to pin something on these guys.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

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