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Will Charges Against former Bell City Council Members Be Dropped?

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Robert Rizzo,  Angela Spaccia, Victor Bello and Oscar Hernandez attend a bail reduction hearing on September 22, 2010 | AL SEIB/AFP/Getty Images
Robert Rizzo, Angela Spaccia, Victor Bello and Oscar Hernandez attend a bail reduction hearing on September 22, 2010 | AL SEIB/AFP/Getty Images

If the defense attorneys for six former Bell City Council members have their way all charges against the officials will be dropped. The officials -- Oscar Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo, George Mirabal, Luis Artiga, George Cole, and Victor Bello -- are accused of, among other things, appropriating public funds. Simply stated, they have been charged with corruption. It may be worth stating the obvious, these officials, elected to serve the public, allegedly duped the public and used their funds for the officials' own benefit. Prosecutors have said that former officials essentially stole up more than $6 million in public funds. As some may remember, former City Manager Robert Rizzo reaped about $1.5 million per year in salary and other compensation.

Why do the former Bell City Council members think they should walk free? They argue that when voters approved a ballot measure making Bell a charter city, the voters gave their elected officials the power to set their own salaries. It is worth noting that the decision to become a charter city in 2005 was made by the approximately 300 voters who showed up to the polls that day.

The basis of the defendants' argument is rather straightforward. State laws govern general law cities. In the case of charter cities, by contrast, the city creates its own governing document. This provides city officials with greater flexibility to institute laws specifically tailored to that city's needs (including the setting of officials' salaries).

However, the ability of cities to become charter cities also means that their elected officials obtain much more power. They are free from many of the state controls imposed on general law cities. If public officials do their job and serve the public interest, this flexibility can work out well. If, as is alleged in the case of the ex-officials from Bell, officials instead use the discretion the charter city form affords to fleece members of the public, things can turn quite ugly. Attorneys for the defendants therefore argue that the proper remedy in such a situation is not prosecution, but rather defeat at the polls.

Given the breadth and depth of charges against the six former Bell City Council members it seems unlikely that a judge will dismiss the charges before a trial on the merits. The charges against the former officials include more than simply making inflated salaries. The facts here could point to illegal salaries as of result of payments received for sitting on city boards that rarely, if ever, met or did any business.

Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy will issue a ruling on December 1.

Jessica Levinson writes about the intersection of law and government in Los Angeles every week. She is a Visiting Professor at Loyola Law School.

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