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The charter city of Bell, Calif.

By Jonathan Morales
Friday, July 23rd, 2010 at 4:07 pm in Uncategorized.

You may be following the tale of a few city officials in the Los Angeles suburb of Bell, who the L.A. Times reported this week are making ridiculous amounts of money.

City manager: Nearly $800,000 a year. Assistant City Manager: $376,000. Police chief: $475,000. And the part-time City Council? Four of the five make about $100,000 each. The fifth found out just recently he’s the only one making $8,000.

The city manager, assistant city manager and police chief have agreed to resign. Their lucrative salaries were built into their contracts.

But what about the council (whom residents are also demanding resign)? How did they become so well paid?

By becoming a charter city, according to the L.A. Times:

A state law enacted in 2005 limits the pay of council members in “general law” cities, a reform prompted by the high salaries that leaders in the neighboring city of South Gate bestowed on themselves.

But the year the law passed, the Bell City Council held a special election with only one item on the ballot. It asked voters to approve a measure calling for Bell to convert to a “charter” city.

The move was billed as one that would give the city more local control, and there was no mention that it exempted Bell from the salary regulations. All five council members signed the ballot statement in favor of Measure A.

Total voter turnout? Three-hundred ninety, with 86 percent in favor.

There are two points to make about this story. One is that, as many Lafayette residents argued during the charter city debate, there can be so-called unforeseen implications of becoming a charter city. Charter cities have authority over “municipal affairs,” but that standard is hard to understand, in large part because the courts have been so inconsistent in defining it. I doubt Bell’s residents knew when they were voting for a charter they were giving the council control to exempt themselves from salary limits.

But the other point, and it’s an important one, is that its unlikely this would have happened in Lafayette. Had the document gone to the voters, it likely would have included a clause granting Lafayette only those powers afforded charter cities specifically mentioned in the adopted charter. In other words, unless the charter says you can do it, you can’t do it. So if the council wanted to exempt itself from salary limits, language allowing them to do so would have needed to be in the original charter or in an amendment later approved by the voters.

Bells charter didn’t include such limitations. And it obviously cost them.

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