Bell, California, Races Pit Out-of-Town Donor Against Unions

Voters in Bell, California, where eight current and former officials face charges related to their outsized pay, go to the polls today to finish what began as a citizens campaign to oust incumbents and turned into a struggle between unions and an out-of-town donor.

The 16 City Council candidates include a truck driver, a school teacher and a retired baker, according to the City Clerk’s records. All five council seats may turn over, including one whose incumbent is subject to a recall vote.

Mailings from Bell’s police union spurred an assertion by the city attorney that uniformed officers promoted candidates, violating the law. Campaign contributions totaling $60,000 from Gwilym McGrew, a retired executive from Woodland Hills, 33 miles (53 kilometers) northwest of Bell, and his wife, Peggy, prompted a state Assembly member to press for the return of the cash.

“I am shocked to hear that any candidate with strong community ties would accept funds from the very people who work against the working families they are looking to represent,” Ricardo Lara, an Assembly Democrat from neighboring Bell Gardens, said in a statement. Lara, whose district includes Bell, said McGrew supports the Tea Party movement, as well as anti-worker candidates and legislation.

McGrew, who started medical-supply retailer, said in an interview that he has backed causes related to Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barney Frank and went with a candidate he supported to a Tea Party event. He said he helped honest people in Bell who he believes will do a good job.

McGrew, 56, acknowledged that his contributions have been greater than what he could give in state races and said the candidates needed the help.

Lack of Funds

“If you go look at the average income in Bell, they just don’t have money,” he said of the Los Angeles suburb. “These are people who didn’t have the dollars to pay for small document requests to root out the corruption.”

Bell’s election underscores the absence of financial limits for local races, unlike those at the state and national level. California rules bar individuals from contributing more than $3,900 to legislative races, $6,500 to statewide candidates and $25,900 to campaigns for governor.

The lack of municipal-campaign restrictions is “a very painful reality that Common Cause is extremely outraged about,” said Kathy Feng, director of California Common Cause, a Los Angeles-based group that advocates for open, honest government. “Local governments are largely unregulated by the same campaign laws the state has to abide by,” she said.

Outsized Salaries

Bell, a city of 38,000 mostly lower-income Latinos about 10 miles (16 kilometers) south of Los Angeles, made national headlines last year when former city manager Robert Rizzo’s annual salary of almost $800,000 became widely known.

Rizzo, Mayor Oscar Hernandez and six other current and former city officials were charged in September with misappropriating $5.5 million in public funds, according to Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley. The Los Angeles Times, which began reporting on their pay in July, said four City Council members received almost $100,000 a year from the municipality. All those charged have entered not guilty pleas.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Henry J. Hall last month ordered the three council members who have been indicted, including Hernandez, to keep out of city business, according to Pedro Carrillo, the interim city administrative officer.

Recall Votes

Council member Teresa Jacobo, one of those charged, is subject to a recall. Hernandez and George Mirabal, another council member charged, both face recalls, although their terms are ending and they aren’t seeking re-election. Miguel Sanchez, 34, a candidate in one of the recall elections, died March 4. He had complained of flu-like symptoms in the days before his death. Sanchez, a teacher’s aide, had McGrew’s endorsement.

Carrillo on Jan. 27 released what he called a fiscal sustainability plan to close a $2.2 million general-fund deficit this year. One option contained in the proposal would hire the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to replace the city’s police force. Spending on the Police Department consumed 68 percent of the city’s general fund, the report said.

The Bell Police Officers’ Association, a union that opposes hiring the county for public safety, has endorsed five council candidates, according to its website.

Campaign Mailings

The group’s mailings in support of council campaigns and sent to residents that included pictures of uniformed city police officers violated state and departmental rules, according to Jamie Casso, Bell’s city attorney.

“Employees can advocate,” Casso said in a telephone interview. “They can’t do it in city uniforms.”

A Los Angeles political consultant hired by the police union said the pictures of uniformed officers in one mailing were his fault.

“It was just a mistake, I take full credit,” Leo Briones, the consultant, said in a telephone interview. “A lot of people who are trying to union bust are involved in this game.”

The union, operating through an independent committee, has spent about $40,000 on the campaign, Briones said.

The challenges faced by the future council include the budget deficit and rising employee costs, said Carrillo, the interim city manager. He said those issues mirror what other local governments confront.

“We’re a microcosm,” Carrillo said. “The state is going through the same thing.”

Union Backing

Ali Saleh, a clothing importer endorsed by the police union, reported total campaign contributions of about $6,514, including $2,400 from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a national labor group. He also got $300 in tee-shirts from a fund affiliated with the police union.

Saleh, 35, opposes eliminating the police force, he said in a telephone interview. His views aren’t tied to the union’s support, he said.

“They paid $300 for tee-shirts, that doesn’t mean I’m going to do what they ask me,” he said in a telephone interview. “We’re paying among the highest property taxes in the county. The citizens at least deserve their own police department.”

Taking money and support from the police union represents a conflict of interest for candidates, according to Nestor Valencia, 45, who is also running for the council.

“Whoever wins is going to be deciding the police department’s fate,” Valencia, a health-care consultant, said in a telephone interview. He has received $26,000 from McGrew, according to campaign filings.

An Outsider

“McGrew is an outsider who consistently fights against the interest of regular people,” Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, said in a statement without elaborating.

McGrew said he has run Web advertisements urging citizens to oppose last year’s federal health-care overhaul and has written articles critical of public-employee pay rates and pension-fund accounting.

In addition to Valencia, McGrew said he provided financial support to two other Bell candidates.

“I urge them to reconsider their decision and return the funds,” said Lara, the assemblyman from Bell Gardens.

No chance, Valencia said. He said McGrew’s support won’t influence his decisions if he wins a council seat.

“It so happens he’s Republican and that’s why they don’t like him,” Valencia said. “I’m a Dem for life. No one else has stepped up to the plate to help us.”

McGrew spent months attending community meetings in Bell after reading about the city’s salary scandal, he said.

“These citizens of moderate income were being abused,” and that got him angry, McGrew said. Valencia and two others he supports won endorsements from the Los Angeles Times, he said.

Editors: Ted Bunker, Stephen Merelman.

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