Journalism in the Public Interest

California City’s Officials Earned Thousands for One-Minute Meetings (or None at All)


Danny Harbor, a resident of Bell, Calif., points to city council members asking them to resign during a council meeting on July 26.

A public furor, several resignations and an investigation by Los Angeles County prosecutors have followed a scandal over the compensation of top officials in Bell, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles.

The exorbitant compensation—totaling more than $1.5 million for one city manager—was originally reported by the Los Angeles Times, which today reported that despite their modest pay for part-time work on the city council, four of Bell’s five council members managed to increase their base pay by more than 50 times by sitting on other city commissions that either never met or often met for just a few minutes.

According to the Times, council members received only $150 a month for attending city council meetings and $60 for sitting on the Redevelopment Agency, but “what pushed their income so high was the $1,574.65 monthly they received” for sitting on the other five commissions.

In 2009, for instance, three of the five commissions never even met. One hasn’t met since January 2005. And records show that when the commissions do meet, they aren’t always engaging in substantial business—unless such business can be conducted in a few minutes. The L.A. Times gives the following example:

Take the meeting of July 31, 2006. The Planning Commission met from 8 p.m to 8:03 p.m. The Redevelopment Agency followed from 8:03 to 8:04, the Surplus Property Authority from 8:05 to 8:06, the Housing Authority from 8:06 to 8:07 and the Public Finance Authority from 8:07 to 8:08.

When asked, two of the four council members under investigation told the Times that they either assumed the pay was for the city council or didn’t know they got paid separately for the commissions. Lorenzo Velez, the only Bell councilman who didn’t take home a salary of about $100,000, has persuaded his colleagues to take a 90 percent pay cut.

An official within the L.A. County district attorney’s office told the Times it was “illegal for council members to be paid for meetings that don't take place or that last just a few minutes.”

On top of it all, the state has found that Bell illegally raised property taxes three years ago, and legislators are considering plans to refund some $2.9 million to residents.

What all the Bell, Calif. officials did, with the exception of Lorenzo Velez, was commit embezzlement of public funds.  All of us expect and believe our elected officials have a fiduciary responsibility which they will honor.  The argument that their pay raises were legally-approved by the city council doesn’t pass the giggle test.  The councilmembers’ expressed ignorance only works if they are illiterate, which they are not.  I hope Attorney General Brown’s investigation addresses what the highest paid officials did with their money, and if they paid kickbacks to anyone.

The practice of meeting fees is pervasive.  Propublica might look into the fees earned by Corporate Directors on “rubber stamp” meetings that are held by law at least quarterly.  This practice is related primarily to quarterly and annual meetings of subsiduaries and non-operating companies.  Many Directors “earn” many hundreds of thousands of $ signing their names to documents testifying to their participation in meetings that are, at best, held over the telephone to legitimize the event. 

Very lucrative.

There’s a famous painting of a square in Spain where a public garroting takes place. Is there a similar square in Bell?
They could raise a few extra bucks for the city by selling tickets to that one.


Jan. 5, 2011, 4:07 a.m.

I am seriously going to start using all of that! Thank you so much, I am not even kidding! There is nothing that I hate more than coming up with content all the time to barely keep our real estate blog up. It’s just so time consuming - so thanks again!

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