OPEN GOVERNMENT -- The explosive self-dealing scandal that has in a matter of weeks
blown away the city of Bell's senior administrative tier was
probably inevitable, given the gaps in the Brown Act and the
newspaper publishing tradition that once provided small towns with
a watchful eye and a voice to be reckoned with, notes a commentary in Voice of OC.

But that community and others like it need not let such a thing
happen again.

First, the newspaper vacuum. Since 1980, when I signed on as
legal counsel with the California Newspaper Publishers Association,
a series of economic shifts has sapped the viability of almost all
family-owned, local, community newspapers in the state and the
nation.

In the '80s, weekly newspapers, and even small dailies, lost
their monopolies as advertising vehicles for big local retailers
like supermarkets, car dealers and real estate offices when
"shoppers," consisting of nothing but ads on newsprint, were bulk
mailed or driveway-thrown throughout town to provide "total market
coverage."

What many of the otherwise no-longer-viable weeklies had of
principal remaining value was their names, attached to a judicial
decree of their essentially monopoly status as a "newspaper of
general circulation" eligible to publish city ordinances and other
legal advertising.

Meanwhile many single-community weeklies had been expanded to
capture the advertising and news of neighboring suburbs, themselves
growing in the post-WWII boom. By the early 1960s, for example, the
Bell Industrial Post, founded in 1924, had become the
Bell-Maywood-Cudahy Industrial Post.

Those names and decrees were increasingly harvested and combined
through the '80s and '90s, especially in the greater Los Angeles
area, by out-of-state newspaper chains. These multi-community
publications attempted to be the same watchdogs over local councils
and school boards that their individual predecessors had been but
were spread far more thin.

The former Industrial Post (last known as the Community News)
went through several chain companies' hands until disappearing as
even an independent name. And whatever close coverage of local news
it had into the 1990s has been gone for the past decade.

Brian Hews, publisher of the Los Cerritos Community Newspaper
Group, recalls in a recent column:

It was years ago that Bell had a community newspaper;
it was called the Bell, Maywood, Cudahy Community News.    I know this because it was part of a larger newspaper group my
family owned. Art Aguilar was the editor at the time and, suffice
to say, you did not mess with Art.

Coincidentally, we sold those papers in 1998, right around the time
Bell hired its highly overpaid City Administrator.This is exactly why cities need a vibrant community newspaper.
We are the watchdog for the residents, keeping in check what goes
on in the city. Johnny-come-lately bloggers have no chance at a
story like this unless they are lucky, and then it is not in
print.


It takes someone like LCCN Editor Jerry Bernstein to spot salaries
such as Bell's and call them out in the newspaper.


In short, the Bell spectacle is what happens to communities
without their own old-fashioned diligent news coverage by veteran
newspaper reporters, or at least smart reporters led by veteran
newspaper editors. The result need not be on paper, but it must be
done with the community memory and professional savvy almost unique
to newspaper-trained journalists with experience watching
small-town politics.

Now to the Brown Act gap. California's open-meetings law for
local government, even if perfectly complied with, does not make it
hard for Bell-like excesses to creep in.

For example, while the City Council's approval of salaries for
four out of five of its members approaching $100,000 a year should
have been done in an open meeting, and may well have been, and
while such an action should have been listed in clear language on
the agenda for the meeting at which it occurred, and may have been,
the Brown Act requires only that the agenda be posted in a single
physical location within the city, and has no requirements for open
meeting minutes.

It does not require Internet posting, and although Bell's web
page does display council agendas and minutes, they cover only the
current year and show no such action.

As for the three hyper-compensated employees, their performance
-- cited as the basis for their astonishingly high salaries -- is
not required by the Brown Act to be reviewed in public, and the law
also allows closed sessions for the council to consider the basis
for any pay increase. Final action on any raises or benefit
increases must take place in open session, like that of the
council's own remuneration, but needs to be given public notice
only on a single sheet of paper under a thumbtack or staple on some
wall in the city.

How these employees' resignations were handled shows further
Brown Act shortcomings. The law allowed the council to take the
question of how the trio would depart into a closed session on
"pending litigation" on the apparent pretext that a "settlement"
was needed to prevent lawsuits by these ex-employees. Settlement
agreements are by law public records, but these, as of this
writing, have not been released, and possibly not even requested by
an inquiring citizen.

In sum, the long absence of a community newspaper covering the
city closely left Bell not a perfect storm but a perfect swamp. The
Brown Act, cultivated over more than a half century by the
newspaper industry, virtually assumes that newspaper reporters will
be on hand to use it in scrutinizing government behavior. But even
reporters require a bit of periodic training to help them decode
agendas and read between the lines of official meeting
bureaucratese that the Brown Act is just vague enough to permit as
barriers to ordinary citizens.

What's needed by Bell -- or any newspaperless town that wants to
avoid becoming another Bell -- is steady, consistent coverage by
competent observers with journalistic talents and instincts
(whatever their publication medium or platform) and some rules
better than what the Brown Act now provides.

For example, the Brown Act might be amended to say that the
council's performance evaluation of any employee paid significantly
more than the average salary for his or her position in the same
size cities statewide must be done in open session with unambiguous
advance notice. That way superior pay for superior performance
would be more than a flip self-serving claim after the fact -- it
would be assured by public scrutiny and community control.

No such Brown Act amendment is likely to happen soon, given the
certain resistance of local government lobbies. That makes it a
logical element to head the menu of a strict local sunshine
ordinance either adopted by the city council itself at popular
urging or, if the council refuses, by a ballot measure launched by
citizen initiative.

The nice thing about small towns like Bell is that getting
enough signatures to put such a reform on the ballot is a smaller
task as well. If even half the people who have been storming Bell
council meetings in recent days to protest the revealed abuses were
to organize into a sunshine ordinance drafting and circulation
committee, they could literally write (and pass) their own ticket
to a transparent city hall.