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Residents Turn In Petitions To Recall Bell Leaders

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(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

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BELL (AP) — Residents of this blue-collar Los Angeles suburb, outraged to learn city officials were paying themselves huge salaries, filed petitions Wednesday seeking to kick four city council members out of office.

Members of the Bell Association to Stop the Abuse rang bells and proclaimed a new age for the scandal-plagued city as they took recall petitions with the signatures of about 4,000 people to City Hall after a rally at the group’s office.

Residents are seeking the recall of Mayor Oscar Hernandez, Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo and council members George Mirabal and Luis Artiga — four of the eight current and former city officials charged last week with looting city funds.

Residents were furious to learn this summer that the four were paying themselves nearly $100,000 a year for their part-time service on the council, which meets about once a month. They also learned that Bell’s former city manager, Robert Rizzo, had a total salary and compensation package amounting to about $1.5 million a year.

“Now we are taking our city back,” BASTA member Violeta Alvarez said as the group packed up the petitions at its modest storefront headquarters, which was crammed with reporters and TV camera crews.

Later, when she helped turn them in at the nearby City Hall, she said, “I got goose bumps. It’s a new day for my city.”

Alvarez, who has lived in Bell 31 years and notes proudly she became an American citizen during that time, said she and others had long suspected city officials were funneling money to themselves. But they couldn’t prove it until the Los Angeles Times obtained public records they had been denied and published the salaries in July.

As City Clerk Rebecca Valdez and other Bell employees checked each petition by hand, BASTA members — standing in front of framed photos of the council members they hope to throw out — kept a close watch.

Recall advocates originally hoped to take their petitions directly to the Los Angeles County registrar of voters, but said they were told they had to go through Bell officials.

“We would have preferred to hand them over to the county ourselves” and avoid going through people who work for the council members they are trying to recall, said Ali Saleh, a BASTA co-founder.

“But as long as we get a receipt that the signatures were released to them, there shouldn’t be any problem,” Saleh said. “That’s why we had them count them.”

Members of BASTA launched the recall five weeks ago and said they collected the 4,000 signatures in just 21 days. If county officials determine approximately 2,100 of the petitions’ signatures — which is 20 percent of the city’s electorate – are from registered Bell voters, a recall election will be scheduled.

BASTA spokeswoman Cristina Garcia said county officials have 30 days to verify the signatures. If there are enough, city officials have 14 days to schedule an election, and it must be held no later than 125 days from that day.

“Next January is what we’re thinking,” she said of the timetable for calling an election.

Since the Times first reported the large salaries of Rizzo, the four council members and others, several government agencies have launched investigations of the working-class suburb of 40,000 people where one in six residents live in poverty.

Last week, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office filed criminal conspiracy and misappropriation of funds charges against Rizzo, the council members and three other former city officials. State Attorney General Jerry Brown has sued Rizzo, the council members and others in an attempt to regain the funds for taxpayers.

In announcing the charges, District Attorney Steve Cooley said Bell officials used the tax dollars collected from residents “as their own piggy bank, which they looted at will.”

Regardless of the recall effort, the four council members would be forced to resign their positions if they are convicted, Cooley said.

Artiga, who has denied any criminal wrongdoing but acknowledged he made mistakes as a councilman, including not paying closer attention to Rizzo’s salary, reiterated Wednesday that he supports the recall and even signed the petitions.

“I think that it is democracy in action, and we’ll see a great involvement in all the community members that’s going to lead Bell to recovery,” he said.

Efforts to reach other council members were unsuccessful. Phone numbers for Hernandez and Mirabal have been disconnected and a telephone listing could not be found for Jacobo.

(© Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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