Demise of a California City Holds Blueprint for Restoring Democracy
“From Kleptocracy to Democracy: How Citizens Can Take Back Local Government”
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“From Kleptocracy to Democracy: How Citizens Can Take Back Local Government”
A book by Fred Smoller
The city of Bell, California, is a three-square-mile tabletop of warehouses, loading docks, 1940s-era bungalows, and packed apartment complexes, all of it splintered by the hard lines of the 710 and 5 freeways. This tiny municipality made national news in July 2010 when the Los Angeles Times reported that city manager Robert Rizzo was paying himself $800,000 and doling out nearly $100,000 in salaries and benefits to six other city council members.
I’m a second-generation Angeleno who was born in East Los Angeles and now live in Highland Park some 12 miles north of Bell. My family knew of Bell the same way we knew of places like Maywood and Cudahy—small, unassuming, and located in what’s colloquially called “The Corridor of Corruption.” My father and I figured this civic plundering probably wasn’t unique, but questions still loomed. Why did it take so long for anyone to catch wind of this in the first place, and who else was involved in bringing the crooked city officials to justice?
Fred Smoller’s “From Kleptocracy to Democracy: How Citizens Can Take Back Local Government” is the tantalizing play-by-play I have waited almost eight years to read. With a narrative that is as accessible as it is concise, Smoller guides us through the history of Bell, the kleptocrats’ rise to power, and the broken system that allowed them to creep in. But this is no historical recounting or even cautionary tale. The engrossing read comes equipped with actionable steps at each chapter for increasing transparency between the citizens and their local government.
Smoller, a professor at Chapman University, breaks local government down into three components: citizens, city officials, and the press. Each holds a specific responsibility to ensure the eco-political health of the city. Citizens are to stay informed about major local issues. Officials are to be responsive to public inquiries in exchange for the support of their residents. The press tells the world how the wheels are turning. This wasn’t happening in Bell.
Smoller refers to the press in traditional terms as “the public’s watchdog,” meant to “bark” when it sees a misappropriation of power. Bell’s watchdogs were muzzled long ago with the last local independent paper, The Industrial Post, going out of business in 1985. The Los Angeles Times barely paid attention until 2010.
Perhaps if there had been a local press to cover the arrival of Robert Rizzo—some seven years after the paper’s demise—there would have been more scrutiny of the new city manager with a shoddy track record. If elected officials are meant to work by the will and power of the public, Rizzo was acutely aware he needed to corral this power to maintain his own control. As his tenure wore on, Rizzo’s measures to keep the public in the dark became increasingly aggressive. City council meetings were held in the early evening, cutting off involvement from the majority working-class residents of Bell.
In 2005, a special election—one which would grant Bell a charter which Rizzo believed would allow Bell to raise city officials’ salaries above the state limits—was held the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. The selected date was intentional. Following the holiday, most people would be back at work and the date itself was weeks after most other elections. Unsurprisingly, the special election had a turnout of only one percent of the city’s residents. This is also to say nothing of the expense this election had on taxpayer funds.
For Rizzo, it might be said, this rigging was less about money and more about power. In an exploitive strategy to bolster revenue, police efforts were focused on impounding cars, rather than protecting Bell’s residents. Rizzo, in turn, also distributed at least $1.5 million in no-interest loans to more than 50 Bell staffers in a “Godfather”-esque display of favors.
Smoller writes, “To Rizzo, Bell’s citizens were customers whose interest in city hall went no further than the quality of the services they received and the amount of taxes they paid.” In the presentation of a public system being warped to fit the transactional philosophy of private enterprise, the reader can’t help but hear echoes of Donald Trump’s campaign to “run America like a business.”
The same callous attitude is also present in Rizzo’s own words, which Smoller carefully details in all their blatant arrogance and avarice.
“If that’s a number people choke on, maybe I’m in the wrong business,” Rizzo is quoted. “I could go into private business and make that money. This council has compensated me for the job I’ve done.”
It’s a statement that’s contrasted against the city council’s documented $673 monthly salaries plus stipends for sitting on commissions that didn’t exist. And none of the parties involved were oblivious to the self-serving nature of their actions. According to an email exchange between assistant city manager Angela Spaccia and the then-chief of police, Randy Adams, Rizzo had a favorite saying: Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered. “So as long as we’re not Hogs … All is well!” wrote Spaccia.
In a twist of fate, the officials’ own sloppy greed made them careless in drafting their charter, which ultimately stated that their pay had to stay within state limits. “Had the charter been worded differently,” Times reporter Jeff Gottlieb states in his interview, “council members might not have faced criminal charges.”
Once the Times broke the headlines on Bell, Smoller delivers the thoroughly satisfying roller coaster of righteous anger that followed. From this surge of awakening and ire, we see the heroes emerge—intelligent and inquiring community members who were either immigrants or their first-generation children. This includes intrepid Times reporter Ruben Vives, a once-undocumented child immigrant from Guatemala, as well as Bell residents and future local leaders Cristina Garcia and Ali Saleh. The diversity, camaraderie, and efficiency of these heroes upends any baseless argument that immigrants are somehow weakening American society.
The Bell scandal was the impetus for BASTA (Bell Association to Stop The Abuse), a local activism group co-founded by Saleh, Garcia, and other Bell locals that would go on to launch a recall against the council. At the helm of BASTA were Latino and Muslim American organizers, two groups who have faced the brunt of the Trump administration’s vitriol. Yet both communities worked in tandem to execute a rapid outreach plan to reclaim power for their city’s residents—a patriotic act by anybody’s definition.
“From Kleptocracy to Democracy” has eerie present-day parallels. When we have a presidential administration often accused of spreading fake news and calling the media “a public enemy,” we see the attacks on our own “public watchdogs.” When this administration threatens immigrants and extends its hostility to their children, Smoller’s work reminds us of the toppling power of stalwart immigrants and their progeny. Perhaps the administration’s enmity hints at an underlying fear that those among us with immigrant roots are potentially the most civically involved. Undoubtedly, it must feel like a personal affront when a corrupt city official feels so emboldened as to plunder a community that others worked so hard to join.
Intended to be generally accessible, Smoller’s prose flows smoothly, reading less like a stiff academic analysis and more part-civic-user-guide, part-case-study-thriller. If there is one dynamic to lament, it is the sparse use of images and graphics in the text. Maybe it’s the history student in me, but when I see an artifact in the pages of my text it underscores the reality and documentation of the occurrences. Having more graphics to convey many of the milestones in the Bell narrative would have satisfied other visual learners.
What sets “From Kleptocracy to Democracy” apart from mere historical recounting is Smoller’s lucid explanation of the radius of municipal power. So many people either do not see themselves as welcomed in these spaces or do not realize what they can access. Detailed recommendations prevent Smoller’s meticulous documentation of the events from being seen as simply a cautionary tale. History is a living entity, and Smoller vividly demonstrates how these errors of the past both impact the present and are liable to be repeated. The ability to vote and additional avenues of civic engagement—community organizing, volunteering, reporting—are all presented as effective checks on local leaders.
While “From Kleptocracy to Democracy” will appeal to readers who lived through the events of the Bell scandal, it will resonate with anyone seeking to make a progressive and sustainable impact in their cities. For cynical and irregular voters out there, this book lights a fire. Readers will wonder how much their own votes could have swung the election of a council member; is that official accurately representing their own vision for their community? Who is the local city manager? And, above all else, what can we do about it now?
As Smoller writes, “The ideas are there […] [but] without such changes, future Bell scandals are inevitable.” The solutions are as simple as reading, voting, and speaking up.
Angela M. Sanchez is a 2018 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow and author of the children’s picture book “Scruffy and the Egg.” She received her master’s in higher education from UCLA.