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Bell faces fresh leadership after recall vote

March 9, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
The scandal-plagued city of Bell is facing new leadership after a special election that resulted in replacing nearly all city council members.

More than 95 percent of the ballots cast Tuesday were in favor of recalling the four city council members who are facing corruption charges.

Bell voters recalled council members Teresa Jacobo, George Mirabal, Luis Artiga and Mayor Oscar Hernandez, according to final election returns.

New city council members are eager to put what was an ugly chapter of the city's history behind them. The five elected make up a diverse group.

The "Bell 8," who were accused of misappropriating more than $5 million in public funds, are officially gone.

Residents elected five new city council members, who are promising transparency.

"I would like to welcome the community to an open door policy. If you have any problems or concerns, come in and talk to us," said newly elected Violeta Alvarez.

Some residents waited in lines for more than two hours to cast their votes. More than three times the number of people than the last municipal election voted Tuesday.

"This is great. I mean, it's history in the making here in the city of Bell. It's a new day in the city of Bell, and I'm very humbled by the support that I've got by the community," said Ali Saleh, also newly elected to the city council.

"We're standing up for ourselves," said newly elected councilwoman Ana Maria Quintana. "We are taking over our city. We're going to make a change and the fact that so many people came out says exactly that."

"Next step is getting sworn in and balancing our city budget, getting a new contract with the police -- and they're going to have to lower their salaries -- and start bringing in new business into the city," said newly elected city councilman Danny Harber.

It was hotly contested campaign between 17 candidates.

"Everybody's looking at us," said Nestor Valencia, who was elected to the city council Tuesday. "What I mean by that, throughout the state, nationwide, so we have a the utmost responsibility, an obligation now to our constituents as would-be legislators for the city of Bell to behave accordingly."

One of the candidates, Miguel Sanchez, died from flu-related complications last week. He still received 23 percent of the vote Tuesday.

The new council members will begin serving the city on April 4.

Jacobo, Mirabal, Artiga and Hernandez 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 and former City Administrative Officer Robert Rizzo and his former assistant, Angela Spaccia.

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

In the race to fill three four-year terms on the council, the top finishers were businessman Ali Saleh with 1,355 votes, followed by Nestor Valencia with 1,242 votes, and Violeta Alvarez with 1,220 votes.

Attorney Ana Maria Quintana got 44 percent of the vote to fill Artiga's remaining term. Lorenzo Velez, the only member of the current council who is not charged in the salary scandal, sought re-election but lost.

Despite defeat, Velez said he was thrilled at how the election brought the community together and how many voters came out to make their voices heard.

Finishing right behind Quintana was late Miguel Sanchez, who died last week from flu-related complications. Sanchez received 23 percent of the votes. His funeral will be held Saturday.

Bell voters said they were happy with the overall outcome. The last municipal election brought out fewer than 10 percent of registered voters. This time around, turnout tripled with 33 percent casting their ballot.

"I just hope that the people that they did vote for are going to be good people, and I believe they are," said Bell resident Alfred Areyan.

Residents said this time around, they're more aware of who will be running their city. They plan to stay on top of city business so they don't have to relive another scandal.

"I think I'll probably be more involved in the process and try to be more vigilent over what they're doing," said Bell resident Lupe Gallegos.

"We just failed before to show up to meetings, but now, I think we're going to be a part of that," said another Bell resident Raul Alvarez.

About a third of Bell's 10,000 registered voters participated in the election.

The new council members officially begin representing their city April 4.

County officials expect to have election results certified by March 22.