Viewpoints

Joe Mathews: We need to learn the right lessons from Bell to prevent corruption

Former Bell assistant city manager Angela Spaccia looks toward her attorney, Harland Braun, before she was sentenced last April to nearly 12 years in prison and ordered to pay $8.25 million in restitution. Joe Mathews writes that to reform local governance, Californians must first recognize a paradox: Preventing local officials from behaving like those in Bell requires giving more discretion and freedom to local officials.
Former Bell assistant city manager Angela Spaccia looks toward her attorney, Harland Braun, before she was sentenced last April to nearly 12 years in prison and ordered to pay $8.25 million in restitution. Joe Mathews writes that to reform local governance, Californians must first recognize a paradox: Preventing local officials from behaving like those in Bell requires giving more discretion and freedom to local officials. Los Angeles Times file

Did we win in Bell?

There is no greater symbol of local California corruption than Bell, a city of 35,000 people and 2½ square miles in southeast Los Angeles County.

For years, Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo and other officials exploited every dark corner of California’s convoluted systems of local governance and finance. They paid each other scandalously high salaries (Rizzo’s own was $800,000 annually), misused the city’s redevelopment agency, borrowed improperly, purchased property off the books and approved illegal fees and taxes.

Today, five years after this malfeasance was exposed, a new, triumphant narrative of Bell has emerged.

At a conference organized by Chapman University last month, the tale’s heroes were assembled: journalists who broke the story, whistleblowers and corruption-fighting citizens, prosecutors who won corruption convictions and state officials who pushed through new laws in response. They were joined by administrators and lawyers who painstakingly put the city of Bell back together. Among their many successes is a $22 million reserve in the city’s coffers.

All this should be cause for celebration. The Bell case – and the response to it – provided a new road map for how California communities can respond after they are victimized by corruption. Future cleanup crews will have new laws and court rulings to help them remove corrupt officials and seek restitution.

But when it comes to the question of prevention – of how to make sure that California doesn’t see more Bells – there is less reason to party. That’s because Californians have failed to learn the central lesson of our long history of municipal corruption: The new rules that are a response to scandals often enable future scandals.

Bell, while spectacular in its particulars, is part of a larger wave that goes back 50 years. In the 1950s and 1960s, county tax assessors from San Francisco to San Diego put their discretion up for sale, offering businesses lower property tax assessments in exchange for power, cash and votes.

The predictable response was to limit the discretion of local officials over property taxes – first with state laws, and later with Proposition 13, which effectively took away the power of local officials to set tax rates. This set the pattern: When cities or school districts find some way to cheat, the state puts new limits on them.

So why haven’t the scandals stopped?

Because all these new limits on the locals have made community governance in California so complex that it’s nearly impossible for citizens to understand what local representatives are up to – and provide a check on their actions. The complexity also forces cities to hire expensive managers and consultants to navigate the limits.

In this context, local governments have two options. The first is to beg the state for money; this has been such a popular option that local governments represent by far the biggest lobby in Sacramento. The second option is to cheat. Or, to put it less judgmentally, to peer into the dark corners of the complicated system and invent new ways to get around the rules.

So to truly reform local governance, Californians must first recognize a paradox: Preventing local officials from behaving like those in Bell requires giving more discretion and freedom to local officials.

Instead of imposing limits that force city officials into dark corners, let’s ease restrictions and give officials more discretion to operate in the daylight. The best reform would be to give California’s local governments more power to raise taxes and other revenues themselves. When cities can tax, people who might pay more have a strong incentive to watch what’s happening in City Hall.

Doug Willmore, the city manager who dug Bell out of its hole, noted at the Chapman conference that the city’s finances remain complex; revenues and expenditures flow in and out of 36 different funds. The city’s chief objective must be “normalizing” finances, he said.

But California’s rule-heavy system doesn’t allow for normal. Until we understand the paradox of Bell, there will be more scandals like Bell.

Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column. He wrote this for Thinking L.A., a partnership of UCLA and Zócalo Public Square.

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