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Lessons of Bell, California.

In 2010, while covering a story in a nearby community, reporters for the Los Angeles Times happened across a sensational public corruption case in Bell, California, a city of about 35,000 people in southeast Los Angeles County. Officials in that small city had manipulated the local charter and subverted the electoral process to award themselves absurdly generous salaries and other forms of payments.

Since that time, the very name "Bell" has become almost a synonym for official corruption, at least in the State of California and among those who closely follow trends in local government and public management. One report on the ABC national news Web site referred to Bell as possibly the "worst corruption scandal in California history." This suggestion would probably surprise most students of California history (worse than San Francisco during the 1890s), and I myself can think of equally egregious cases in recent years.

The story was significant, however, for a variety of reasons, most notably for two: First, because it was not an isolated incident. A partial list of nearby communities that have experienced public corruption investigations between 2003 and 2010 would include South Gate, Lynwood, Bell Gardens, Cudahy, Maywood, and Vernon. Second, Bell was significant because the main figure accused and later convicted of wrongdoing, Robert Rizzo, was the appointed city manager. What's more, the corrupt officials were cleverly using provisions of their home rule charter to enrich themselves without the knowledge of local residents. This was a subversion of the original purpose of home rule charters and professional managers, to discourage corruption.

Some who have looked into the situation in Bell in other southeast Los Angeles County cities have compared this outbreak of corruption to failed states in third world countries. Others have noted that many of the residents in this region are immigrants from Latin America where corruption is often thought to be more endemic than in North American suburbs, but one need look no further than the history of American cities to find parallels to the corruption cases in southeast Los Angeles County.

What leaders in some of these communities were attempting to create was an old-fashioned cliente-list regime, a patronage system reminiscent of the crooked bosses and party machines of the late nineteenth century. It might be useful at this point to remember that patronage played a critical role in the development of democratic institutions in the United States. In the late nineteenth century, patronage was a form of social welfare in poor, immigrant neighborhoods before there were government forms of welfare, such as unemployment insurance of social security. For supporters of the Tammany Hall organization in New York City, patronage came in the form of jobs, bail, and even funeral costs. For businesses, party machines acted as brokers for permits, licenses, and franchises. Patronage was a powerful means of political organizing and voter mobilization. Job seekers were particularly avid political volunteers, working at the ward or precinct level to motivate supporters of their particular party or faction. In the earliest days of the emerging republic, patronage wasn't even considered a bad or corrupt practice; quite the contrary. In fact, when Andrew Jackson first implemented his system of "rotation," the wholesale replacement of federal job holders with party loyalists, the British reformer Jeremy Bentham wrote an approving letter. Jackson himself viewed patronage as a means of uprooting an entrenched professional bureaucracy of elites in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, from the beginning, the dark side of patronage, corruption and self-dealing, was all too evident. Though Jackson complained about the very real corruption that existed in the Monroe administration, the dealings of his appointee to the New York City Customs House were even more flagrant than those of the corrupt officials who came before him.

Even before Jackson's first term, miniversions of the spoils system were already taking root at the state and local levels. Martin Van Buren, head of the Bucktail faction of the Democratic-Republican Party in Albany, New York, was a particularly enthusiastic practitioner of political patronage. Historian Edward Pessen wrote in his study of politics and culture during the age of Jackson that the Bucktails' "cardinal rule was that office and influence were to be granted only to those who accepted without question the authority of the leadership. Those who would challenge regency control were removed from appointed office and barred from patronage" (p. 240). The opportunities for patronage began to grow in the late nineteenth century as the population of the United States swelled and the country made the transition from a rural to an urban society. The unwieldy, decentralized municipal government systems of the times gave ample opportunities for all kinds of patronage and corruption. It is estimated that the Tammany machine in New York controlled as many as 60,000 jobs atone time. In Cincinnati, lower-rank city officials paid a percentage of their salaries to the local party machine. Candidates for office and local contractors made generous donations in the hopes of winning support.

Reformers began to push for civil service standards in the 1870s, but it wasn't until the assassination of President James Garfield by a deranged would-be spoils seeker that the civil service reform movement began make inroads. Congress passed the Pendleton Civil Service Act shortly after the assassination, and New York State passed a bill requiring written examinations for employees in municipal government the next year. Many other states and localities followed suit in subsequent years. The reforms didn't end with civil services regulations, however. A wave of municipal reformism changed the very nature of local government in the early to mid-twentieth century. By professionalizing municipal management and enacting (in many localities) nonpartisan elections, the reformers disrupted the connection between employment and political participation. Patronage didn't disappear. It simply became less obvious, acceptable, and disruptive.

In their book Pinstripe Patronage, Martin Tolchin and Susan J. Tolchin have argued that political patronage is "alive and well" in contemporary America (p. 2). Examples of these favors would be no-bid federal contracts, congressional earmarks, and appointments to gubernatorial and presidential staffs, to name a few. In the meantime, old-fashioned examples of patronage and corruption are revealed at the state and local levels from time to time (and not just in southeast Los Angeles County). The authors identify examples in all parts of the country and at all levels of government, including school boards, country commissions, cities, state governments, and judicial appointments.

In the meantime, the question of what to make of the plethora of corruption cases in and around Bell and South Gate, California, is a complicated and delicate one. Is the fact that so many of the residents are recent immigrants or second-generation immigrants relevant (shades of late nineteenth-century American cities)? Is it significant that voter turnout rates in those communities tend to be lower than the statewide average? Are those two factors related? What about the lack of media coverage in recent years? Many of these communities used to have their own weeklies that closely covered local government affairs. These factors are worth looking into as long as we don't fall into easy assumptions or facial and cultural stereotyping, which was a not-uncommon vice among municipal reformers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Yet I certainly don't agree with the suggestions of some observers that the form of government in Bell, the city council/city manager form, is to blame for what happened there. It may be true that professional managers have been responsible for some of the corruption in southeast Los Angeles County-and in at least one case they used the charter as a means of corruption. The same could be said of the other forms of government at the local level, and I know of no data to suggest that the council/manager form is prone to abuse. What may be true is that certain aspects of the municipal reform agenda of the early twentieth century, notably at-large, nonpartisan, off-season elections, may have discouraged voter participation. It should be remembered, however, that breaking the link between public management and party loyalty improved the overall quality of city government. The challenge for "good government" advocates of the twenty-first century, it seems to me, is to combine the higher standards of professionalism sought by the reformers with the spirit of participation of Jacksonian democracy.

Some simple lessons that I think can be drawn from these and other examples of corruption are that when the public is disengaged, when government decisions are made without public participation and support, bad things can happen, and often do. The story of South Gate, which journalist Sam Quinones captured in his book, Antonio's Gun and Delfino's Dream, offers a potentially hopeful story of how a community with a large immigrant population and low voter turnout rates can rally to fight corruption and restore higher norms and standards for local government. (See the "City of South Gate" case study in this issue of NCR.) Quinones argues that the community organizations developed to engage the public in efforts to address crime issues and improve schools served as models for political education and democratic organizing and assisted opponents of a corrupt regime in building support for a recall movement. These organizations made it possible for the newer residents to interact with local institutions and older residents in an effort to oust the corrupt officials who were bankrupting and embarrassing their community.

As many social commentators have observed, notably Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, declining memberships of traditional service and fraternal organizations have diminished the social capital that communities need to address difficult issues. The South Gate example suggests that new organizations can arise and take the place of the older membership organization to serve as networking agencies and repositories of social capital. "South Gate hadn't entirely lost its anonymity," writes Quinones. "But people now knew more of their neighbors. South Gate had become an unashamedly teary-eyed, heartwarming Norman Rockwell painting, updated to the twenty-first century. Young shaved-headed Latinos and blue-haired ladies stood shoulder to shoulder during the campaigns [to oust the corrupt leaders] and ate from the same box of donuts" (p. 111).

In South Gate, residents banded together to replace the corrupt council majority with a more civic-minded group. Once in office, the new council majority sought assistance from the League of California Cities to create a new management structure. Even Bell, despite its notoriety as a poster child for public corruption, is experiencing something of a civic resurgence. Last year the city's interim city manager brought in Pete Peterson of the Davenport Institute at Pepperdine University to advise on the 2012-2013 budget process. The institute helped the city set up a series of public forums to get residents more engaged in thinking about budget challenges.

These examples suggest a new purpose for advocates and practitioners of pubic engagement/democratic governance movement: to help struggling cities come to grips with corruption and mismanagement. As editor of a journal that originated during the Progressive Era and served for many years as the primary forum for ideas on municipal governance, I find these stories intriguing and hopeful. During the Progressive Era, local reformers changed the face of municipal government, mostly for the better. The most glaring exception to this story of successful reform, as I have argued in past articles, is the declining rates of participation, notably the lower voter turnouts that followed the reforms. The causes of this decline in participation are varied and complex, but many have argued that the reforms themselves contributed to the decline. The possibility that professional norms and safeguards can have negative effects, however, does not obviate the need to guard against corruption and mismanagement, as these examples in southeast Los Angeles County attest, but the search for solutions to both problems, disengagement and bad government, point us in the same direction: to community building, boosting social capital and civic infrastructure, and increasing levels of public engagement.

DOI: 10.1002/ncr.21115


Fremd, M. Von, and J. M. Metz. "Bell, California: Former City Manager Snoozes at Pay Scandal Court Hearing," ABC World News Tonight Web site, March 1, 2011. Accessed January 5, 2012. http:/ ?id= 13028339#.UOsvwuTO2FJ.

Pessen, E. 1969. Jacksonian America: Society, Personality and Politics. Homewood, Ill.: Dorsey Press.

Quinones, S. 2007. Antonio's Dream and Delfino's Dream: True Tales of Mexican Migration. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Tolchin, M., and S. J. Tolchin. 2011. Pinstripe Patronage: Political Favoritism from the Clubhouse to the White House and Beyond. Boulder, Colo.: Paradigm.

Michael McGrath is the editor of National Civic Review.
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Author:McGrath, Michael
Publication:National Civic Review
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Mar 22, 2013
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