04/09/2015 by Bill Britt

City of Bell scores top grades for open data access one year after trials conclude


(Photo Credit: Justefrain/Wikimedia Commons)

One year ago this month, former Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo was sentenced to 12 years in prison for his role in what became known as The Bell Scandal. Five former elected Bell officials were convicted of corruption for paying themselves salaries of up to $100,000 a year for part-time positions.

In a city where one-quarter of the residents live below the poverty line, their elected officials not only bilked the city out of millions, they left it unable to afford the experienced administrators and staff who are now needed to replace them.

But first, the good news: The City of Bell now boasts one of the more open municipal websites when it comes to accessing data. Not only are city procedures and salaries posted, but Mayor Nestor Enrique Valencia points says the names of the people earning those salaries are listed as well. “Before the scandal was exposed, we didn't even have a website. For years, if you clicked on it, it was the same online picture of a little girl and boy with the caption, 'Website under construction.' Our new Finance Director has since turned things around.”

That would be Josh Betta. He's so good at his job that, during his tenure as Finance Director for the City of Glendora, he received the Certificate of Achievement, the highest form of recognition for governmental accounting and financial reporting from the Government Finance Officers Association of the United Stated and Canada. He regarded Bell as a city worth saving.

“The idea of having a useful and viable website is simply good business," said Betta. "The challenge is letting people know it exists. After they find it, the challenge for users is perspective. Sure, you can see our salaries but if you want to know whether a salary or increase is appropriate, you have to find the contract pertaining to that union. It's also on the website, but you've got to do the work. It's not all laid out for you.”

Which is why Mayor Valencia wants to take the website a step further by at least making that contract easy to find. “Visually,” Valencia says, “I'd like to see a tab where people go right to the specific things they're looking for, but personally, mindful of those fake bonus rewards that were exposed in the scandal, I want us to post total compensation. Not just salaries but pensions, health care benefits and any potential, legitimate bonuses as well.”

While Betta boasts that the city's website earned an A-minus grade in 2013 from the Sunshine Review, an organization that evaluates the transparency of government websites, Valencia points out that Bell has replaced one image problem for another: It can't afford to hire quality administrators and support staff. Valencia says the city's interim city manager has moved on, and both Financial Director Betta, and the Community Development Director are also leaving.

“Our current city manager did great work," said Valencia. "Our Finance Director, who was key to this turnaround, is moving on. They've done their work and other cities are able to pay them more money. We just don't have the funds to compete.”

And that fact alone causes the mayor to wonder if Bell can survive as a city. “If you can't hire the right people and they won't stay for whatever reason, it questions the sustainability of a city. We need good, dedicated professionals with proven experience. Right now, I'm proud of what we've done to turn things around. We'll continue making data easily available online and other cities should follow as well.”

Categories: Tech-enhanced Government, Open data, Accountability, Transparency

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