When no watchdog barks

When Sherlock Holmes searched for a missing racehorse, the fact that a watchdog failed to bark proved to Holmes that no stranger had entered the stable.

But in Bell, Calif. — where city officials systematically looted the municipal treasury for their personal gain — there’s a different reason no watchdog barked: There was no watchdog.

The blue-collar suburb of Los Angeles, with a mostly Hispanic population of 35,000, had its own community newspaper until the 1980s. Since then, it has mostly been served by the Los Angeles Wave, a weekly paper that covers dozens of LA suburbs.

The editor of the Wave told a Chicago newspaper that his paper didn’t have the resources to cover every suburb fully. No reporters attended Bell City Council meetings or examined the city budget.

So ex-City Manager Robert Rizzo could give himself a salary of $800,000 a year,  and use city funds to provide loans for friends with no one the wiser. Mayor Oscar Hernandez and the City Council could draw salaries around $100,000 a year for part-time jobs.

It wasn’t until two Los Angeles Times reporters stumbled upon news of the excessive salaries in Bell while researching a story about a neighboring city that the Bell scandal erupted in July.

This week Rizzo, Hernandez and all but one council member were arrested and charged with defrauding constitutents of more than $5.5 million. There is a state lawsuit to recover the money, and it is likely the city government will be placed in a receivership.

We can’t guarantee all this would have been prevented if Bell had its own newspaper. But, if there were reporters attending council meetings, writing about city budgets — in short, acting as journalistic watchdogs — it would have been far more difficult for Bell officials to turn the city coffers into their personal bank accounts.


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