One Year After The Scandal: The City of Bell Scores Top Grades For Open Data Access

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By Bill Britt
For The Latino Policy Connection

The City of Bell has developed a powerful tool designed to pull back the covers of government and reveal how city finances work. A new city website was created not only to inform residents about city employee salaries and contracts, but also, hopefully, re-instill confidence in local government.

“Before the scandal was exposed, we didn’t even have a website,” says Mayor Nestor Valencia.   “For years, if you clicked on it, it was the same online picture of a little girl and boy with the caption, ‘Website under construction.’ Our new Finance Director has since turned things around.”

The “scandal” Mayor Valencia refers to thrust the small working-class Latino city into the national spotlight. One year ago this month, former Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo was sentenced to 12 years in prison and five former elected Bell officials were convicted of corruption for paying themselves salaries of up to $100,000 a year. For a time the scandal turned the city into a symbol of government corruption. And not only did Rizzo and his crew con the city out of millions, they left it unable to afford the experienced administrators and staff who are now needed to replace them.

Enter Josh Betta, the Finance Director Mayor Valencia is proud to point out. He’s so good at his job that during his tenure as Finance Director for the City of Glendora, he received the Certificate of Achievement, the highest form of recognition for governmental accounting and financial reporting. He regarded working Bell as challenge.

Says Betta, “the idea of having a useful and viable website is simply good business. The challenge is letting people know it exists. After they find it, the challenge for users is perspective. Sure, you can see our salaries but if you want to know whether a salary or increase is appropriate, you have to find the contract pertaining to that union. It’s also on the website, but you’ve got to do the work. It’s not all laid out for you.”

Which is why Mayor Valencia wants to take the website a step further by making that contract, and other information, easy to find. “Visually,” he says, “I’d like to see a tab where people go right to the specific things they’re looking for, but personally, mindful of those fake bonus rewards that were exposed in the scandal, I want us to post total compensation. Not just salaries but pensions, health care benefits and any potential, legitimate bonuses as well.”

While Betta boasts that the city’s website earned an A-minus grade from the Sunshine Report, an organization that evaluates the transparency of websites, Valencia points out that Bell has replaced one image problem for another: It can’t afford to hire quality administrators and support staff. Valencia says the city’s interim city manager has moved on, and both Financial Director Betta, and the Community Development Director are also leaving.

“Our current city manager did great work. Our Finance Director, who was key to this turnaround, is moving on. They’ve done their work and other cities are able to pay them more money. We just don’t have the funds to compete.”

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