BELL (AP) — The crowd outside Bell City Hall erupted in cheers when the City Council for the scandal-plagued Los Angeles suburb voted to hold a recall election, although many were not happy that they couldn’t watch the historic moment in person.
Minutes earlier, police had cleared the City Council chambers of a raucous audience of about 100 recall supporters after one of them had offended a council member who then briefly walked out.
After the audience left and the member returned, the council quickly voted 3-0 to schedule a recall vote on March 8. On that day local residents will go to the polls to determine whether to boot Mayor Oscar Hernandez, Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo and Councilman George Mirabal from office and replace them with three candidates for City Council.
It’s something residents — angry to learn the council members and others had been paid huge salaries to run the working-class city — have campaigned for for months.
It almost didn’t happen, however, when Jacobo got up and left. She was angry at a local resident who, speaking in Spanish, began to tell her she had squandered her reputation as a pillar of the community.
With only three members present, the minimum needed for a quorum, Jacobo’s exit threatened to end the meeting before the vote could be taken. Hernandez soon followed her out the door and the two wouldn’t return until the audience was cleared of everyone but the news media.
“This is what we’ve been waiting for for months and they brushed us all off, and I didn’t think it was fair for us not to see the vote and to see their reaction,” said 18-year Bell resident Willie Aguilar, who listened to the vote, along with scores of other people, just outside City Hall on loudspeakers that had originally been set up to accommodate an overflow crowd of about 200 people.
The recall was prompted by news that Jacobo, Hernandez and two other council members were each paid nearly $100,000 a year and that several city administrators were making well more than that.
Eight current and former officials, including Hernandez, Jacobo and Mirabal, have been charged with looting $5.5 million from the city treasury.
Hernandez and Jacobo, who are free on bail, appeared at the meeting along with Councilman Lorenzo Velez, the only Bell elected official not charged with a crime. Velez, who was paid only about $8,000 a year for his council service, has said he didn’t know of the huge salaries other officials were receiving.
A fifth councilman, Luis Artiga, resigned soon after he was arrested. Mirabal, who was released from jail only last week, did not attend Monday’s meeting.
Because Artiga’s name was on recall petitions circulated earlier this year, his name will also be on the March 8 recall ballot. However, a separate election will also be held that day to fill his vacant seat. Velez will also be up for re-election because his regular term expires then, meaning all five council seats will be in play.
“We’re excited with the vote but are we finished? No,” said Aguilar who was among those who didn’t get a chance to speak.
“We’re going to continue to press and go after them as long as they’re still involved with the city,” he said of the council members targeted for recall.
The council meeting, the first in more than a month in Bell, began a half hour late and the first hour was given over to public comment. While several people had questions about routine matters like trash collection, some used their allotted three minutes to mock the council members who had recently been released from jail.
“Did you enjoy the food? You looked really good in orange,” 17-year resident Coco Ceja told Jacobo who had appeared at a court hearing in September in an orange jail jumpsuit.
She asked Hernandez, “Are you ready to go back?”
“Yeah, I’m ready,” the mayor shot back, softly but defiantly.
Residents targeted Hernandez, Jacobo, Artiga and Mirabal for recall soon after the Los Angeles Times reported last July that the four were paid nearly $100,000 a year and that several other city officials were also drawing huge salaries.
Top among them was former City Manager Robert Rizzo who when numerous perks like vacation, insurance and other benefits were added to his $787,637 salary had a total compensation package of about $1.5 million a year.
The eight, including Rizzo, are due back in court Dec. 8 for a pretrial hearing on charges of misappropriation of public funds and other crimes.
Several other public agencies including the state Attorney General’s office and the Department of Justice are also investigating the city of about 40,000 residents.
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