Participatory Democracy in Bell, California
If there were such a thing as a Public Outrage Meter, it would be registering unprecendented levels of angst. The Gulf Oil Spill. The Wall Street Bailout. LeBron James. The latest (and possibly greatest) case of societal outrage, at least in my corner of the country, is being directed at the public servants of Bell, California, a working-class, immigrant-heavy Los Angels County city located in the card casino corridor along the I-5 freeway.
The city has something like 40,000 residents. The City Manager, who resigned when his salary was revealed, is set to earn $1.5 in compensation and benefits this year, including a projected pension of more than $600,000 a year. All but one City Council member was paid nearly $100,000 a year. And the Chief of Police was paid $457,000 to serve and protect his flock. In comparison, the LAPD Chief earns around $300,000.
Bell residents were also infuriated to learn that they were taxed at rates that eclipsed all but the richest cities, inlcuding Beverly Hills and Palos Verdes Estates. They were furious that services had been cut while their bills increased — and the Assistant City Manager got a 47% raise, to more than $350,000.
The righteous fury resonated with everyone who mistrusts those in power; all the conspiracy theories, it suddenly seemed, had some credence. These were criminals posing as altruistic officials. These were living symbolds of a system run amok. And so forth.
How, one might reasonably wonder, did the criminal masterminds of Bell engineer the legalized larceny? Were they stealing social-security numbers and using Swiss banks and shadow corporations in the Cayman Islands? No. In fact, the rule changes that allowed the Bell ringers to design their gigantic money suck was approved by the voters of Bell in a special election the year previous. The measure passed resoundingly. It wasn’t even a close contest.
Only 336 people voted.
The entire Bell story was broken and exhaustively reported by the Los Angeles Times, one of those supposedly irrelevant luxuries called newspapers. The poetic irony is almost too perfect: Had the residents of Bell actively participated in the Democratic Process, which includes becoming educated on issues up for a vote — and reading newspapers is one important way to accomplish this — the greedy lawmakers wouldn’t have been able to swindle their ignorant consituents.
This is how the game is played. What happened in Bell happens every day any place there are people holding power over others. It’s in the interest of those in authority (and those who hold the purse-strings) to keep the plebes uneducated and narcotized by their entertainment culture. It’s in the interest of the rest of us that everyone in our sputtering democracy read widely, think critically, and question persistently.
Otherwise we all pay.