BELL, Calif. – Voters went to the polls Tuesday with a chance to elect a group of reformers in a blue-collar Southern California community that became the face of municipal corruption in the country when officials were accused of paying themselves six-figure salaries while the city was going broke.
A steady stream of voters lined up at four polling places in Bell to cast ballots for candidates for all five seats on the City Council.
Four council members were targeted for recall, although one has resigned and two others aren't seeking re-election. All four have pleaded not guilty to dozens of fraud and other charges accusing city officials of looting the city of more than $5.5 million.
Authorities say they drove Bell into as much as $4.5 million in debt in the process.
Lorenzo Velez, the only member of the current council who was not charged, is seeking re-election. He was paid just $7,500 a year for his part-time service.
"As long as we have honest people in there, absolutely we will be in better shape," Danny Harber, one of 17 candidates seeking election, said Tuesday as he buttonholed voters on their way to the polls. "We've got a long way to go, but this is a start."
A few miles away in downtown Los Angeles, Mayor Oscar Hernandez, former Councilman Luis Artiga, former City Manager Robert Rizzo and former Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia sat in a courtroom listening to testimony at a preliminary hearing. They are among the eight current and former Bell officials facing charges in the corruption scandal.
"How is the turnout?" Artiga asked outside court. He and Hernandez said they planned to vote after the hearing ended.
Hernandez and Councilman George Mirabal had been up for re-election but decided not to run after the scandal broke. Artiga, whose term would have expired in 2013, resigned after he and the others were arrested.
Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo, whose term also expires in 2013, chose to remain in office and fight the recall launched last summer after residents learned of the generous salaries, including an annual compensation package of $1.5 million for Rizzo.
It was "corruption on steroids," Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley said about the salaries and dozens of low-interest loans of city money to favored people.
The replacement candidates represent a cross-section of the city. They include an attorney, high school English teacher, health care administrator, real estate agent, small-business owner, construction contractor, truck driver, social worker, retired baker and environmental activist.
Municipal elections in Bell typically draw few voters. Two years ago, only 1,332 of the city's 9,395 registered voters participated.
This one was expected to be different. There are now 10,485 registered voters, and more than 2,500 of them signed the recall petitions.
The race was complicated by the death Friday of Miguel Sanchez, one of the front-running candidates. He died after becoming ill with flu-like symptoms.
His name remained on the ballot to replace Jacobo, if she is recalled. If Sanchez should win, the new City Council must decide whether to appoint a successor or schedule another election to replace him.
Under ordinary circumstances, the outgoing council would call a meeting to swear in the new members. But last month, a judge ordered Jacobo, Hernandez and Mirabal to stay at least 100 yards from City Hall.
"There are some challenges with that, but we're slogging through it," interim City Attorney Jamie Casso has said.
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