US & Canada

California city pay scandal highlights media cuts

Protesters outside a Bell city council meeting, 26 July
Image caption Bell residents are angry about the pay packets of their city officials

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has called for the salaries of top local government officials to be posted online, in the wake of a pay scandal that has outraged residents in a southern California city.

The move follows the revelation that the city manager of Bell, which is part of Greater Los Angeles, was being paid almost $800,000 (£500,000).

Speaking to business leaders in San Diego, Mr Schwarzenegger said angry members of the public had been calling city halls around California demanding to know what officials were paid.

He said that if local governments "had nothing to hide", then they should post the salaries on city council websites.

The salary scandal was exposed by the Los Angeles Times, which revealed that Robert Rizzo, the city manager, was being paid $787,637.

His deputy, Angela Spaccia, received $376,288, while the police chief, Randy Adams, took home $457,000. All three have resigned.

Four of the council's five part-time, elected members have agreed to a 90% cut in their salaries. They had been earning almost $100,000.

The council members have said, however, that they will not resign - much to the chagrin of local people.

The salaries were hugely out of step with the levels of pay made to most public officials in California and around the US.

The Bell officials were also receiving pay packets that dwarfed the income of most area residents.

Bell, a small city of about 38,000 people, has an unemployment level of 16% and many in the mainly Hispanic, blue-collar community struggle to make ends meet. About 17% of people live in poverty.

"The real question is, what were they thinking?" said California's attorney general, Jerry Brown, as he announced a wide-ranging investigation.

"What was the atmosphere in Bell that would allow this and make it plausible at least to the members of the city council?" added Mr Brown, who is a candidate to replace Arnold Schwarzenegger as the state's governor.

Bell's mayor, Oscar Hernandez, has apologised to the community and said he will step down after completing the rest of his term without pay.

Hundreds of records have been subpoenaed from the city as part of the state attorney general's investigation into possible criminal activity. The inquiry is expected to take up to six weeks.

Anger vented

Local residents are furious that their civic leaders were enjoying lavish salaries, for many years, apparently without anyone in the outside world noticing.

Hundreds of people have vented their anger at council meetings. Residents say they want more heads to roll and they are prepared to organise a recall election to oust council members who refuse to quit.

The scandal has highlighted a lack of local media coverage of Bell and many other outlying cities in California.

"There are 88 municipalities within the county of Los Angeles alone," explains Michael Linder, an investigative reporter with KABC radio in Los Angeles.

"This story of outrageous salaries and monster pensions, that could help bankrupt the state of California and the city of Bell, was simply something that slipped through the cracks.

"There is no local newspaper in Bell or within the little cluster of cities that surround it, that cover the city council."

The Los Angeles Times made public city council documents that local people had apparently been trying to access for years.

But the Times is the only major metropolitan newspaper covering the region, and it has seen major cutbacks over the past five years.

"If there's any lesson, it's got to be that our antenna have to be even more acute in this era of cut-backs," says Peter Shaplen, a veteran network TV news producer, based in California.

"Bell is remarkable for its inherent blandness... it's a town where nobody was paying attention because nobody had any reason to think that anything was amiss - and I think that's where the lesson is," adds Mr Shaplen, who writes a blog about trends in the media.

Citizen journalists

The scandal has focused attention on other local authorities that receive little or no media attention and raised questions about a lack of accountability for locally elected officials.

Image caption Riot police were called after clashes outside a Bell council meeting on Monday

"Citizen journalists are going to have to very much take up the role of watchdog for their communities," says Mr Linder.

But citizen journalists, while well-meaning, may not be best equipped to expose any wrong-doing by potentially secretive local authorities.

"I'm not expecting citizen journalists to be the same as trained professionals," says Mr Shaplen.

"It's not just a whistle-blower role, and it's not just somebody who has the first camera on the scene or picks up the phone.

"Citizen journalism works when people who care are heard by the organisations which buy ink by the ton."

Mr Linder agrees that citizen journalists would struggle to expose a scandal on the scale of Bell city council.

"Citizen journalists do not have the clout that a major metropolitan newspaper, or the power of a TV camera has, in being able to force city officials to come clean," he says.

"It's going to be extremely difficult for citizen journalists to crack the core of corruption within city government."

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