Published: July 29, 2010
Updated: 5:00 p.m.


In his capacity as California attorney general, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown announced Monday that his office had subpoenaed salary, employment and contract records from the city of Bell, which had been paying its city manager a $787,637 annual salary and all but one City Council member nearly $100,000 a year for part time duties. Mr. Brown’s move, while a good use of his bully pulpit to decry the activities in Bell, appears to be more a politically motivated maneuver than one with any real basis for legal recourse.

The city administration in Bell, a community of 36,000 mostly low-income residents in southeastern Los Angeles County, has faced the furor of local residents and attracted national media attention over its exorbitant pay practices. Last week the city announced the resignation of high-earning city manager, assistant city manager ($376,288) and police chief ($457,000). Monday two council members agreed to reduce their pay by 90 percent, while the mayor and vice mayor said they will forgo a salary for the remainder of their respective terms.

Mr. Brown launched an investigation to discover whether civil or criminal law was violated by the city council and the recipients of the lavish salaries, after Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley (running as a Republican to replace Mr. Brown as attorney general) announced he had begun an investigation.

Did Bell violate the law? Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Irvine law school, said he could not see any legal problems with what the city officials did. “As a charter city, it can decide what to pay its employees. It was unwise, perhaps unconscionable, but I can’t see it as illegal,” he said. Charter cities are not held to many of the restrictions imposed on other cities by the state Legislature. Bell became a charter city in 2005 after voters approved an initiative; the expanded salaries came shortly thereafter.

This is not the first time Mr. Brown has jumped on an issue offering a national spotlight. Late last year Mr. Brown’s office announced it was investigating ACORN, a national association of community organizers that advocates for low-and-moderate-income people. In that well-publicized imbroglio, representatives for ACORN’s San Diego office threw out reams of documents days before investigators from Brown’s office were scheduled to visit. At the time, David Lagstein, ACORN’s chief organizer in San Diego, said publicly that the state’s top law agency was in ACORN’s corner. In a recorded speech he gave to the East [San Diego] County Democrat Club in October, Mr. Lagstein said that every bit of the communication he had with Mr. Brown’s office suggested that ACORN would not be punished.

Months later, Mr. Lagstein ended up being correct. In April, Mr. Brown released a statement saying ACORN “committed no violation of criminal law” in the document dump. Mr. Brown still got the media attention for being willing to take on ACORN, comprised of individuals likely to back a Brown-like candidate, in an attempt to paint himself as a maverick not bound by ideological political parameters. Though in the end, his actions against ACORN accomplished nothing more than garnering attention.

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