Bell, California, owes the fact that it is not bankrupt to a newspaper. Not a local newspaper—they don’t have one—but to the Los Angeles Times. Two Times reporters began by writing an investigative report on possible malfeasance in Maywood, a city near Bell. In the course of the investigation, the reporters discovered an irregularity at city hall in tiny Bell, a blue-collar suburb of Los Angeles (population about 35,000, 2009 median income $37,483, per capita income $12,544). Over 50% of Bell’s residents are foreign-born.
The Times reported that the salaries at Bell City Hall were the highest in the nation. The City Manager was collecting a salary of $787,637 a year with annual pay increases of 12%. (The president of the U.S. makes $400,000 in salary.) The Chief of Police was making $457,000. According to a link on Wikipedia, “In February 2008, it was revealed on CBS nighttime news that the police chief had allegedly exchanged emails with the assistant city manager on how they were going to arrange his over $400,000 salary and how to hide that fact from the citizens.” The assistant city manager was bringing in $376,288, with a 12% annual raise. Other officials also made over $400,000 per year. City Council members made close to $80,000 a year, with the exception of one poor guy who was making only $8,076. Bell citizens, meanwhile, paid more in property taxes than residents of Beverly Hills.
When a citizen filed a public records request with city hall, asking for records on these salaries, he was given falsified records that showed the city manager was making $180,000 per year.
Why should you care about this story? Not because I think any fraud of this nature is happening in the Winona area, but because it reflects what occasionally can happen if government action and records are not regularly scrutinized by citizens and the news media.
The Winona County Board is currently discussing whether or not to charge a flat fee to citizens who request data from the county, in addition to a cost for printing the information, for which they are allowed to charge. A charge of this nature would unduly burden private citizens and the news media in their efforts to bring transparency to government entities.
Transparency not only serves the interests of the citizen taxpayer, but also of the government entity itself, which when under scrutiny will naturally try to operate more efficiently and responsibly.
Investigations by the Winona Post over the years have uncovered government actions that were previously not well known—whether intentionally or not is not clear—not only by citizens, but also by Winona County Board members.
In one instance, a committee, the majority of which was made up of county employees, was found to have set aside a large sum of money over the years in a “building fund” out of its budgets. In effect, money that was collected from taxpayers to be spent on roads or social services or other county business was diverted for a new building, years before any new building was approved by elected officials. The taxpayers were levied an average of $2.5 million above expenses between 2003 and 2009.
Another issue was brought to light when a former county department head made promises to pay a consultant more than the County Board was aware of or had authorized.
Recently, the Winona Post uncovered the fact that Veolia, the firm that is contracted to pick up recyclables in the countywide program, not only wanted more than the contract specified, but more annually to the tune of $900,000 for the five-year contract. The sum finally agreed upon was closer to $58,000 annually.
These are episodes that the County Board and citizens need to know about so that the county does not take more money than it needs from taxpayers. Perhaps they would have come to light without the Winona Post. Perhaps not.
Government is funded by the people. Government needs to be accountable to the people. Data requests are one of the few ways we have of making sure of that accountability. State law takes that fact into consideration, and so should the Winona County Board.