'You Guys Are Stealing From the Poor': California City Mulls Firing Overpaid Manager

Robert Rizzo, manager of Bell, California, earns nearly $800,000.

July 22, 2010, 4:24 PM

July 22, 2010 — -- Robert Rizzo could attend this evening's closed-door meeting of the Bell City Council and be fired -- and he'd still be lucky.

Rizzo, city manager of Bell, California, a city 14 miles south of Los Angeles with fewer than 40,000 people, is the highest paid municipal employee in California. At more than $770,000 a year, he earns nearly twice the salary of President Obama.

But even if he is forced to resign or is fired, he will become, by far, the highest paid pensioner in the state.

And that's not all that's got the local citizens riled up: Bell Police Chief Randy Adams earns $475,000 and Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia earns $375,000.

Revelations that the city council repeatedly approved such hefty salaries in a city where the average citizen earns around $28,000 a year and 2008 census data shows 17 percent of the population lives in poverty has sparked a preliminary investigation by the Los Angeles County district attorney and public outrage.

"There is no way to describe these people other than to call them predators," said Ali Saleh, founder of the newly created the community group Bell Association to Stop the Abuse.

"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."

The district attorney's potential investigation likely would not focus on Rizzo, who received raises of more than 12 percent annually, but on the council itself. Most of the council's members earn $100,000 a year for part-time work. City council members in comparable cities doing similar work 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."

Bell Citizens Outraged

Today's closed-door council meeting was announced just Wednesday and comes on the heels of a heated public meeting on Monday July 18, just days after a Los Angeles Times article breaking the story was published. That meeting was so adversarial that it was adjourned and postponed until next Monday, July 26.

If no decision is made on Rizzo and his colleagues' fate today, they might only learn if they're out of their jobs next week.

But being fired won't be all that bad for Rizzo, who will become the most well-paid pensioner in California if and when he resigns.

"At a minimum, if he doesn't take advantage of any of the legal options, his pension will be $709,607 a year," said Marcia Fritz, head of the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility. "If he took advantage of all the options available and he retires today, he would make $884,000."

Over time, Rizzo could draw a pension exceeding $30 million.

The current highest-paid pensioner in the state makes just more than $500,000.

"We're looking at California state's first million-dollar man," Fritz said.

Rizzo, Bell Mayor Oscar Hernandez and Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo would not comment to ABC News. All calls to City Hall seeking comment were directed to Rizzo's assistant, Pedro Carrillo.

Rizzo did not appear at Monday's council hearing.

Police Chief Randy Adams, however, defended his salary on Monday.

"This is southeast L.A.," Adams said at the meeting. "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."

But that is little consolation to the people of Bell.

"Our government is not supposed to work that way," said resident Denisse Rodarte. "You guys are stealing from the poor, and you guys are laughing all the way to the bank."

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