July 23, 2010 -- Three municipal officials whose outsize salaries sparked a firestorm of outrage in the working-class Los Angeles suburb of Bell, Calif., resigned after midnight Friday following an emergency meeting of the city council.
Robert Rizzo, the city manager, will leave behind a $784,637 annual salary -- nearly twice the pay of President Obama -- and will not receive a severance package. Nevertheless the 56-year-old will draw an immense pension, between $650,000 and $880,000, making him the highest-paid pensioner in California.
"Rizzo resigns and still makes more than $600,000," said Ali Saleh, founder of the Bell Association to Stop the Abuse, a grassroots community group. "That's why I call him a predator. He's taking advantage of the community whether he keeps his job or resigns."
Along with Rizzo, Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia, who earns $375,000 and Police Chief Randy Adams, who earns $475,000, 50 percent more than Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, also agreed to resign.
Rizzo and Adams will both step down in August and Spaccia will leave in September.
The council held a closed-door meeting late into Thursday night. After several hours the members emerged to a room full of citizens who burst into applause following the announcement.
Community activists hailed the decision, but questions remain regarding the fate of the of the five-member city council, who accepted the employees' resignations but whose own large salaries have made them the target of a potential criminal investigation.
Four of the five council members, who approved the employees' salaries, earn over $100,000 for part-time work, sparking a preliminary investigation by the Los Angeles County District Attorney.
City council members in comparable cities holding similar posts typically earn around $4,500.
"We're reviewing the facts to see if we need to launch a formal investigation," said Jane Robison, spokeswoman for the L.A. County district attorney.
"Part of what took place is legal," she said. "If the council voted to give [Rizzo] the pay, that's legal. How much the council members are making and how those elected officials got that pay might require investigating."
The Los Angeles Times, which first revealed the employee's salaries last week, reported on Friday that the council seized the ability to set pay through a ballot initiative that only 400 people voted on and which made no express mention of salaries.
"When Rizzo came in, in 1993, he was one of the lowest-paid city managers in the state," said Saleh, who owns a fashion company and last year lost an election for city council. "Now he's the highest. It's not hard to understand what happened. He raised utility taxes, raised property taxes to the highest in the area, and pushed through a $70 million bond issue to fix the parks, but we haven't seen any of it."
Bell, a city of less than 40,000 people, is located 14 miles south of Los Angeles. The average citizens earns around $28,000 a year and 2008 census data shows 17 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
The employees and the elected officials had been tightlipped through the week-long scandal and negotiation.
Only Police Chief Randy Adams defended himself during a public council meeting last week, saying: "This is southeast L.A… Some of the former members of this department are in the federal penitentiary right now. They asked me to come in and make an assessment and bring in best practices to this police department, and I have diligently been trying to do that."
On Friday Mayor Oscar Hernandez broke his silence. In an open letter he attacked the LA Times for reporting the story and stood by Rizzo's salary.
"Unlike the skewed view of the facts, the Los Angeles Times presented to advance the paper's own agenda, a look at the big picture of city compensation shows that salaries of the city manager and other top city staff have been in line with similar positions over the period of their tenure," Hernandez said in the letter.
But Hernandez also recognized that the citizens were angry over the compensation.
"We recognize that today's economic climate and the financial hardships so many families are suffering put our past compensation decisions in a new light. To the residents of Bell, we apologize."
But that apology comes as little consolation to the people of Bell.
"Our government is not supposed to work that way," said resident Denise Rodarte at an earlier council meeting. "You guys are stealing from the poor, and you guys are laughing all the way to the bank."