Bad Day at City Halls: Scandals, Bankruptcies, and Crimes

My former boss (still a city manager after more than 40 years) likes to point out, when told of some new villainy by a public official, "We're all going to hell in a handbasket." It certainly looks like it, as this roundup of public catastrophes makes depressingly clear:

Cudahy. The Cudahy city council has been winnowed by resignations to just three members after current and former city officials were swept up in an FBI investigation of corruption in the operation of marijuana dispensaries. The Cudahy officials were caught in the same sting that recently forced the resignation of a Santa Fe Springs councilman.

Compton. Compton won't be able to make its payroll after September 1, and city officials are actively considering bankruptcy to escape $43 million in bond debt. (Compton isn't alone. El Monte and Monrovia have warned rating agencies that they will have problems meeting bond payments.) The city treasurer told council members this week that Compton has only $3 million in the bank and $5 million in unpaid bills.

San Fernando. Little San Fernando isn't going bankrupt (is it?). Romantic entanglements, not city finances, have busted the city council. So far, one councilman has resigned rather that face recall over his affair with a councilwoman.

Santa Ana. Something worse is bothering Santa Ana, where a councilman was arrested two weeks ago on sexual assault charges. (He now wants the charges dismissed, claiming that the county prosecutor's pre-trial statements have prejudiced potential jurors.)

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Stanton. According to the Orange County Register, Stanton has become "a shell of of a city," hollowed out by falling property values, the loss of redevelopment funds, poor sales tax returns, and a utility users tax that had failed to raise the expected revenue. Like many small cities in Southern California, most of Stanton's budget pays for public safety programs. But cutting Stanton's law enforcement contract with the Orange County Sheriff's Department is unlikely. Without those cuts, however, Stanton may be the next California city to file for bankruptcy.

Vernon. Political corruption runs deep in Vernon, and now there are new reports of election irregularities, worsening finances, and even more chaos in city management.

Westminster. Westminster told its city manager to retire or be fired, although the reason for the city council's ultimatum is unclear. Like Stanton, Westminster has been battered by the Great Recession. The city manager recently laid off 67 city employees, cut some services, and reduced future spending by nearly $7 million.

Every unhappy city is unhappy in its own way, but there are a few general reasons why these cities seem to be trundling off to perdition:

First, no one was looking while dumb or corrupt city council members and senior managers made decisions that turned out to be toxic to their community. The public was indifferent. The news media were largely absent. In places like Vernon and Cudahy, criminal conspiracies settled in.

Second, decades of low (and still declining) voter participation allowed untested candidates to be elected by little more than their personal constituencies. A couple of thousand votes are enough to get elected, even in the mid-size cities of Los Angeles and Orange counties.

Third, 30 years of haywire state and local government financing came undone during the Great Recession. As municipal revenues declined, cities with "rainy day" reserves spent them to keep public services at the level their residents expected. To stay ahead of its mounting debt, the state confiscated locally collected taxes and fostered befuddling schemes to expand the Legislature's grasp of local revenues. Governor Brown's execution of redevelopment -- which cities used to escape Proposition 13's revenue limitations -- completed the downfall.

It's a full handbasket we're in and getting more crowded. Hell here we come.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

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