By Sharon McNary
Opening arguments are expected later this week in the trial of several former council members from the city of Bell. They are accused of taking large salaries for little or no work and receiving illegal loans from the city. While the drama unfolds in court, a new group of leaders is trying to rebuild Bell, a small city in Los Angeles County.
Barber Charlie Ortiz, owner of Charlie's Chop Shop, trims the hair of a young client as he chats about the change he's seen in Bell.
He's a burly guy with tattoos covering just about every visible inch of skin. He was a stranger when he arrived a dozen years ago from a neighboring town looking for a place to open his own martial-arts themed haircutting business.
"When I first came here, I didn't know anybody here," Ortiz said. "Now it's like one of those old Western towns like you see on TV where everybody knows each other, 'Hey Mr. Henderson!'"
But Bell is no Mayberry.
A little over two years ago, Los Angeles County prosecutors accused city manager Robert Rizzo of secretly arranging a million-dollar annual salary for himself, and $100,000 salaries and illegal city loans for part-time City Council members.
"They think that the people of Bell don't know what's going on, because maybe some people are not legal or maybe because they don't speak English," Ortiz said. "And boy, were they wrong, huh?"
Charlie Ortiz, owner of Charlie's Chop Shop, cuts a client's hair and chats about the small-town atmosphere of Bell, Calif.
Six accused former council members go on trial this month in one of the most blatant cases of alleged public corruption in California's recent history. Rizzo and an assistant go to trial later this year on charges of bilking city taxpayers of some $5.5 million.
The city, now under new leadership, has racked up legal expenses nearing $2 million since the scandal broke two years ago -- about triple the amount a similar-sized city would have. It's mired in about 40 lawsuits.
But the city also opened its books, adopting an ambitious open-government policy. A new website lists every contract and city employee salary, and a list of every check the city writes is available at council meetings.
Much of the credit for that transparency goes to local businessman Ali Saleh, now in his second year as mayor. On this afternoon, Saleh is at a ribbon-cutting for a business that trains developmentally-disabled adults. He makes the pitch for Bell.
"Any businesses that you guys may know, tell them that the city of Bell is a very friendly business community and we're delighted to have the new business here in the city of Bell," Saleh said.
About 10 years ago, Saleh began attending City Council meetings. He was surprised to find they were sometimes just minutes long, free of dissent and attended by only a handful of people. It wasn't until Bell's salary scandal was uncovered by the Los Angeles Times that he fully understood how bad things had gotten under former city manager Rizzo.
"He was a disgrace to local government to the city manager's position. What he did to our community was shameless," said Saleh.
But the scandal that rocked Bell also seems to have shaken people awake. Council meetings now stretch for hours and draw dozens of residents.
Retiree Maria Arizmendi is part of this new wave of activism. She volunteers with Parents on Patrol, a new school safety group. She says life in Bell is better under new management.
"We're hanging in there, it's moving a little at a time, bueno, and we see some change," she said, adding, "Not as fast as we want it to, but it's moving."
But it's a big challenge to leave the legacy of corruption behind, Saleh said.
"I don't know if we can move on," he said. "We can move on from the scandal, but we can't move on because we still have this property tax assessed on us for many years."
Bell residents still pay one of the highest parcel tax rates in Los Angeles County, after approving bonds that Rizzo and the old council placed on the ballot. The city defaulted on bond payments and owes millions on others.
There's also debate over whether Bell can afford its police department. The police union is in negotiations with the city and Saleh says wants to keep the police department intact, but he's pressing for lower salaries and pensions.
Councilman Nestor Valencia prefers to dissolve the Bell police and outsource public safety to the county Sheriff's Department or another agency.
"Probably the biggest thing that I'd like to see is for those obligations to be mitigated, negotiated," Valencia said. "Somehow, if we have to, just say, "we can't do it. BK the whole thing."
By "BK", Valencia means declaring bankruptcy, a measure only three California cities have taken in recent years. He's willing to see Bell go bankrupt in order to restructure its mounting debts.
Valencia represents a vocal minority on the council, but he's hopeful the upcoming city council election in March ushers in yet more change.
"The good is that we still have an opportunity. Elections," Valencia said. "Finally, there are six people running in this election cycle, I'm not up for election, but there are two who are up and four who are running for those seats and that's exactly what we wanted."
In light of the recent turmoil, another debate in the city seems almost quaint; whether to rip out speed bumps installed on some of the quieter streets of town. Perhaps it's a sign that local government is finally ringing true in the city of Bell.