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Bell residents turn page with recall election

March 8, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
Voters in the embattled city of Bell got a chance to make a change Tuesday in a special recall election, following a corruption scandal involving eight current and former city officials who face dozens of charges of fraud and misappropriation of public funds.

Residents lined up at the four polling places throughout the city to elect a new city council.

More than 95 percent of voters cast ballots in favor of recalling council members Mayor Oscar Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo, George Mirabal and former Councilman Luis Artiga.

In the race to fill Jacobo's remaining term, retired baker Danny Harber won with 54 percent of the vote, according to final election returns.

Attorney Ana Maria Quintana received 44 percent of the vote to fill Artiga's remaining term. Miguel A. Sanchez, 34, who died last week, came in second with 23 percent.

The recall targeted only four of the council's five members, but all five seats were in play because the only council member who didn't take a big salary, Lorenzo Velez, was up for re-election.

However, Velez, who was paid just $7,500 a year for his part-time service, lost.

The county said voter turnout in the last municipal election was less than 10 percent, but it was a different story on Tuesday as droves of voters showed up at the polls.

"I'm feeling like I'm hitting somebody back. I'm going to let them have it," said Bell resident Rosalva Adama-Leon.

Authorities say Bell officials stole more than $5.5 million from the city, using it to pay themselves enormous salaries.

Outraged residents were quick to launch a recall campaign after learning last summer that most of their part-time city council members were making $100,000 a year and giving annual salary and compensation packages of hundreds of thousands to a handful of other employees.

There were 17 names on the ballot for the election.

Other candidates included people of such varied backgrounds as attorney, high school English teacher, construction contractor, truck driver, social worker and environmental activist.

Sanchez, who fell ill to the swine flu, was part of the Justice for Bell ticket, supported by a $60,000 donation from a Woodland Hills businessman who had no previous connection to Bell. The group wants to disband the police union.

Another group called, United 4 Bell supports keeping the police in place. The group is endorsed by the Bell's police union.

"I do support the Bell Police Department because that's the only thing we have left from what used to be in Bell," said Violeta Alvarez, a candidate on the United 4 Bell ticket.

Both tickets though, saw Tuesday as a way to turn the page on city management.

Hernandez, Mirabal, Artiga and Jacobo were ordered last month to stand trial on charges of misappropriation of public funds. Also ordered to stand trial were former council members George Cole and Victor Bello.

Also charged are former City Administrative Officer Robert Rizzo and his former assistant, Angela Spaccia.

Rizzo is the alleged ringleader in the salary scandal, with prosecutors saying he was collecting a roughly $800,000 a year salary.

Rizzo spent another day in court Monday while future leaders of Bell spent the day campaigning.

County officials expect to have election results certified by March 22. Under ordinary circumstances, the old council would then call a meeting to swear in the new council. But last month a judge ordered Jacobo, Hernandez and Mirabal to stay at least 100 yards from City Hall.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.