Why Bell – and Maywood – Matter

So there’s been a LOT of discussion in Southern California over the last week or so about the situation in the small city of Bell, one of the hundreds dozens of incorporated cities in Los Angeles County, where top city officials were making truly stunning salaries, nearing $800,000 in one case.

The story is being pushed hard by the right, which sees an opportunity to undermine both government and public employee unions – although these salaries weren’t the product of a union contract, conservatives are ignoring that detail to imply that Bell is symptomatic of a bigger problem of “overpaid” public workers, so that we should simply impoverish everyone instead of making the relatively minor fixes to address the occasional abuse of the system.

But another story in the region has gone relatively underreported. Maywood, which borders Bell to the north, has laid off its entire police force and contracted with the LA County Sheriffs Department to police their city. In the SF Bay Area, San Carlos is considering a similar move. Here in Monterey, the Peninsula cities have been considering integrating their fire services, and already Pacific Grove has contracted with Monterey to oversee its fire services.

The real issues aren’t that government is incompetent or that public workers are greedy, as the right-wingers would have us believe. Instead the truth is that California’s city governments are in need of some fundamental reforms – including city consolidation – and that we need to do a better job of ensuring residents are fully engaged in the process of local government.

Joe Mathews and Mark Paul have argued that one problem is that we simply don’t need all these cities, especially in Southern California – there’s no need for these populations to be divided up into dozens of small cities. I tend to agree here.

The only reason cities like Bell, Maywood, South Gate, Huntington Park, and Compton – among the other so-called “Gateway Cities” – existed in the first place as separate cities and not part of the city of Los Angeles was a desire to maintain racial segregation. In an excellent book about the mid-20th century history of this region titled “My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920-1965”, historian Becky Nicolaides explained that many of these cities incorporated to prevent being annexed not just by the city of LA, but by the LA Unified School district. The goal was to keep nonwhite residents out of these white working-class suburbs and to keep white students from having to share a school with other students of color in the LAUSD.

For a while it succeeded. My dad was born in South Gate in 1957, at a time when my grandparents recall the city being uniformly white. The nearby Watts Riots in 1965 began a trend of white flight to the suburbs (my family had moved to Orange County several years earlier) and in the 2000 census, South Gate was reported to be 92% Latino. Many of the other Gateway Cities also have large Latino populations, some of which are undocumented and therefore denied full citizenship in this country.

Steve Lopez made this point in a recent column:

Those cities have largely poor, immigrant populations that are too busy working to pay close attention to City Hall, which means they can be easily exploited. Voter turnout is low, in part because many residents are undocumented and even many legal immigrants aren’t yet qualified to vote. And there’s not much media presence because of cutbacks by everyone in the industry, including The Times, so the rascals are left to steal with impunity.

“It’s a very predatory type of mentality,” said Cristina Garcia, a Bell Gardens resident who is an adjunct professor at USC.

The right-wing is already trying to reject this argument. Pete Peterson (not the same person who is trying to destroy Social Security and Medicare, unsure whether they’re related) writes in Fox and Hounds Daily that Lopez is wrong:

First, even understanding that there may be a sizable number of undocumented residents in cities like Bell, with a stated population of 36,000, the special election, which allowed the city to set its own pay for the city council back in 2005 was won on a vote count of 336 to 54.  A quick addition and division shows that about 1% of the total city population made the decision to put the municipality on its ruinous course; there’s low turnout, and then there’s civic malpractice. It stretches credulity to believe that 99% of the city’s residents could not have been more involved – either directly through the ballot box, or indirectly through reading local press – in Spanish or English. Certainly, Bell’s citizens are engaged now, as the hundreds protesting around City Hall demonstrate.

Peterson’s claim is basically that it’s the residents’ fault for not showing up. But he simply dismisses Lopez’s reasons without any real explanation. It’s not just the number of undocumented residents, but the fact that if 99% of the city’s residents aren’t engaged, then there is some kind of structural problem.

Should city council meetings be held on a weekend? Should the city undertake more aggressive ways to reach out to the public, instead of just assuming that whoever shows up shows up and if they don’t, tough luck?

Or do we need more fundamental reforms, such as same-day voter registration, a comprehensive immigration reform to bring more people into the ranks of the voting population? And should we finally examine some kind of local government reform, whether it’s city consolidation with neighborhood representation structures or something else entirely, like turning LA County into a kind of Madrid-style city-state with dozens of elected representatives?

Joe Mathews wonders if Bell has ended local government reform:

Bell’s leaders may have set back the cause of restoring more local control over finances. While the particulars of each proposal are different, several good government groups are arguing for allowing local government to keep more control over tax revenues. But it’s hard to make the case for trusting municipalities after the abuse of power in Bell.

I disagree here. What’s more likely is that Bell will fuel the desire to return power to local governments so that Orange County isn’t “subsidizing” Bell, or that Carmel isn’t “subsidizing” Seaside. Cities with more prosperous residents and more effective governments will want to cut themselves off even further from places like Bell, Maywood, Vernon, and others that have had problems in recent years.

At the end of it all, we ought to conclude that here, the system worked. The free press learned about the story, and the public demanded and have now won action to address the abuses. Compare that to the private sector, where Goldman Sachs still spends over $1 billion in bonuses even after helping destroy the economy, and the rest of us are essentially powerless to stop it.

I’m not surprised the right-wing has been silent as the night on that matter.

9 thoughts on “Why Bell – and Maywood – Matter”

  1. This is yet another example of broken California government. Sub state level government in California is a patch work quilt of county and municipal governments with an unbelievable array of special purpose districts that range from large school districts to cemetery and mosquito abatement districts. In the pre-prop 13 days they all had fairly easy access to the property tax base.

    It will be an uphill fight to accomplish sufficient increases in tax revenues to provide really basic services like health care and education. All of these local government functions are in a terminal state of starvation. To say that consolidation and cost savings are urgently needed doesn’t strike me as a right wing talking point.  

  2. There are a few bad apples everywhere, including the public sector, unions, corporations, small businesses, non-profits, etc. The right loves to pick and choose which are the most rotten and which (they claim) spoil the whole basket or the entire crop. With corporate rotten apples, they look away, but with most others, they make the claim that because they found one rotten apple, the entire union, or government agency, etc. crop is shot and should be chopped down.

    Enough of that analogy. What the Fiorina/Whitman/Arnold/Rand Paul/etc. types can’t get a grasp on is that there are a hell of a lot more people out there who care about actual public service, the common good, helping their neighbors, and making it a better world for all and not just about making a profit. There are many of us who would seek a cure for a disease because we want to end suffering, and not because we can patent it and make a fortune. They envision a society that is motivated solely by the bottom line, and that bottom line care ONLY for profit. This is one of the most basic, core conflicts between those who believe in a strong role for government (with proper checks and balances) and a weak government that is nothing but an arm of corporations.

    The far right also love to attack public sector workers as overpaid. What they really don’t like is that the pay and benefits received by those workers represent what used to be more of the norm in this country, back when there was a strong middle class and more equitable, fair distribution of the wealth. Now the private sector promotes the race to the bottom, pushing more deregulation, fewer corporate taxes, “free” trade agreements, and the ability to outsource labor and hide profits overseas, while speaking out of the other side of their mouths and claiming these measures will create jobs. They want to be able to cut or eliminate benefits and freeze or reduce wages to levels that will make workers desperate…and, basically, at the level of indentured servitude.

    We don’t need to throw out the baby with the bathwater. We always need to be vigilant with the public sector as we do with the private sector, but we aren’t served at all by a gutting of that public sector. The public sector, among other things, is OUR means for keeping a better balance of power and if it’s seriously out of whack these days, it’s because we, the people, have fallen asleep at the wheel.

  3. The Brown Act is California’s open meetings law, and its purpose is to ensure that the public’s business is done in public and that decisions are not made behind closed doors.

    IMHO, it is time for an update.

    For example, decisions cannot be made except at a fully agendized meeting with proper public notice. Proper public notice, however, is generally posting the agenda on the wall outside some obscure doorway. Yes, if you know it’s there, and you know where and when the meetings are, it’s accessible to you. But, as a practical matter, most of the people in the community will never see the agenda or know where they could find it. Local newspapers don’t publish them…. if you even still have a local newspaper covering that area. They’re not generally on the internet. A small town within a large metro area like Los Angeles is essentially invisible in the press.

    In the case of small boards, a quorum can be as few as two or three members. The lawyers interpret a blog/message board with comments as potentially an unagendized serial meeting. So, for example, if you were to have a City of Bell message board and three members wanted to comment and reply to the public, that would be a Brown Act violation…. even though one might point out that this would be more open and more public and more accessible than the actual meeting.

    You can webcast or teleconference meetings, but they also need agendas posted 72 hours in advance at each location.

    It’s a long term inside baseball issue, but it could use some thought. Certainly I can’t imagine that these salaries would have gone without comment if people had actually known about them in advance.

  4. While it’s true that conservatives will bring this up to attack public employee unions, the simple fact is that a good many city managers and other top municipal executives ARE overpaid. They should make an amount equivalent to what executives in similar-sized private organizations make.

    While small cities should not have been carved out in the past, and certainly not for reasons of segregation, individuals have pride in their cities and the idea of forcing cities to consolidate is offensive and impractical. What means would you suggest to get them to do it? Do you think the legislature would be willing to pass laws to force consolidations? Think again — lawmakers who support this kind of legislation would be voted out post-haste.

    I don’t want my city to be consolidated with any neighboring community and I don’t know a single person who desires it for their city.

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