The mayor of the tiny town of Bell, California just outside LA opened Monday night's meeting with a question: "How is everybody?"
Did he really have to ask?
Residents responded with a shower of "boos" as the council prepared to take up the salary scandal that had meeting attendees fuming. The council voted Monday night to lower the salaries of four of its members from $96,000 a year to $673 per month following public criticism.
If the "boos" didn't give Mayor Oscar Hernandez an idea of the mood in the room, a series of speakers went into detail.
"You were a crook yesterday, you're a crook today, and you'll be a crook tomorrow," one speaker said as he pointed at the council.
Hernandez apologized for excessive pay and said he will finish his term without pay and not seek re-election. His term expires March 2011.
"To the residents of this great city, I apologize that the Council's past decisions with regard to the indefensible administrative salaries have failed to meet that test. We know we have hard work ahead of us to restore Bell's trust even as we work to maintain the unparalleled city services that our families depend on," Hernandez said in a statement. "As a first step to putting Bell on a new path forward in our governance, I will continue to serve our city without pay through the remainder of my term," he said.
The apology comes after the City Council booted its police chief, city manager and assistant city manager at an emergency meeting on Thursday. The council called another such meeting for Monday night to address the future of this 2-square-mile city southeast of Los Angeles.
"The fight doesn't end here," said Ali Saleh, who co-founded the group Bell Association to Stop the Abuse after the salaries were revealed.
Attorney General Jerry Brown's office is looking into the case. Brown said Monday he has subpoenaed hundreds of records from the city. He demanded to see employment contracts from the city of Bell within 48 hours to determine whether to file charges.
Hundreds of residents who were enraged to learn last week that the lowest paid of the three ousted employees was making more than $300,000 a year were expected to attend the council meeting and demand that council members, most of whom are making about $100,000 a year, either slash their own salaries or resign.
Saleh and other BASTA members, whose acronym translates to "Enough!" in Spanish, planned to paper the town with 12,000 flyers over the weekend, urging people to attend the meeting.
For many residents at Monday's meeting, a pay cut was too little -- they called for resignations. And, as the LA Times reports, it was too late for some former city workers.
At the same time that top Bell officials were receiving some of the fattest municipal salaries in the nation, the city cut spending on police, social services, and parks and recreation, according to interviews and records reviewed by The Times. While City Manager Robert Rizzo was receiving more than $700,000 a year, Rosario Torres was laid off from her $9-an-hour job preparing children for kindergarten.
"They tell you they don't have the money to pay you, and you think 'OK, I understand, they just don't have the money,' " Torres said. "But I never imagined they were making so much money themselves. It's incredible."
The salaries exploded into public view after a Los Angeles Times investigation, based on California Public Records Act requests, showed the city payroll was bloated with all sorts of six-figure salaries.
Here are the numbers:
Hours after last week's emergency meeting, Hernandez released a letter in which he defended the compensation. He also attacked the newspaper that first reported about the sky-high salaries.
"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.
If there is a recall, Saleh said his group would like Velez to stay on the council and work toward reforming local government in the city of 40,000 where one in six live in poverty.
The council salaries were made possible by a little-noticed ballot measure that passed during a special election five years ago.
A state law enacted in 2005 restricted council pay in "general law" cities, but that same year the Bell council authorized a special election with one item on the ballot -- converting Bell to a "charter city." The LA Times reported that the measure's language did not mention the effect the change to charter city would have on council salaries.
The measure passed. Fewer that 400 people voted.