BELL (AP) — With most of the City Council that turned this nondescript Los Angeles suburb into a national symbol of municipal corruption facing a recall election next month, many of those who led the fight to boot them from office have lined up to replace them.
Seventeen people, most of them prominent leaders of last summer’s recall drive, are running for five seats on the City Council in next month’s election. They began making their case for their candidacies this week at a pair of candidate forums in this working-class city of 40,000 people.
The recall was launched after the Los Angeles Times reported that four of the city’s five council members were paying themselves about $100,000 a year for their part-time service to a city where one in six people live in poverty. The Times also revealed that former City Manager Robert Rizzo had an annual compensation package of $1.5 million and that several other top officials were drawing huge salaries.
Rizzo, four council members and three other former officials have since been charged with fraud. The council members facing charges include the mayor and vice mayor. All have pleaded not guilty.
The recall’s leaders — many of them political novices whose efforts initially were fueled by anger — have since joined the March 8 race to replace the four council members targeted for recall, including one who has already resigned.
A fifth council member, Lorenzo Velez, did not take a high salary and was not targeted for recall. He is seeking re-election.
On Wednesday night, seven of the candidates attended the first of two forums aimed at discussing their candidacies with voters.
They acknowledged they would have to learn on the job, but they pledged to be honest and said they could do no worse than their predecessors have.
“The city cannot get any worse than it is,” said Ali Saleh, a lifelong Bell resident and one of the recall leaders who is seeking office.
The facts seem to bear him out.
Interim City Manager Pedro Carrillo recently reported the city is as much as $4.5 million in debt and may have to disband its police department or take other drastic actions to balance the budget.
Residents also learned last year that millions of dollars in taxes were wrongly collected to fund the enormous salaries and must be returned.
As taxes rose drastically over the years, residents complained that businesses abandoned the city.
I remember when Bell was beautiful and the streets were clean,” said Violeta Alvarez, a 31-year resident who is also seeking office. “We had beautiful stores that you could shop in, restaurants, even a movie theater. Now all that is gone.”
Candidates were short on specifics about how they would fix things. But they were adamant that they would not raise taxes as the current council did.
“First of all, no more taxes, no more taxes,” said Saleh.
Another candidate, Willie Aguilar, told voters that for a time he feared he might lose his house as taxes rose every year.
“I don’t want anyone else to go through that,” he said.
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