Cutbacks in the newspaper industry, resulting in a lack of local news coverage, created an environment that allowed for massive corruption in the Southern California city of Bell, where eight officials were jailed after their outrageous salaries came to light.
That’s the assessment of highly respected former San Mateo city manager Arne Croce, who yesterday took over as Bell’s interim city manager.
Croce will replace City Manager Robert Rizzo, who was arrested and jailed after it was learned he had paid himself $1.5 million in the previous year and was paying huge salaries to numerous other Bell officials. The city’s mayor, assistant city manager and five council members were also thrown into jail in what became a national story about government corruption.
“As newspapers pulled back on resources and stopped covering local government, it helped create an environment that people could take advantage of that environment,” Croce told the Palo Alto Daily Post on Monday.
The Los Angeles Times broke the story about corruption in Bell, which earned the paper the coveted Pulitzer Prize.
But the corruption had been going on for years, and it went unnoticed by the public because papers such as the Times weren’t covering the routine local government stories that keep the community informed.
Croce said he spoke to one of the 20 Times reporters who broke the story. He said that reporter agreed that there wasn’t enough news coverage before the Times broke the story.
“It’s easy to fly under the radar,” said Croce. He said news coverage and public scrutiny are a key part of our democracy.
But the absence of watchful reporters wasn’t the only thing that contributed to the scandal, he said.
Bell, a blue-collar city where one in six people lives in poverty, didn’t have enough residents paying attention to their local government, said Croce.
“With or without media, it’s important for citizens to recognize it’s their city government and it has to reflect their values and be engaged,” said Croce.
But the residents have stepped up to the plate since, including the current council members who replaced those that now face criminal charges, said Croce.
“The community has come forward, saying that we want our city government to put us first as residents and want an ethical, professional city government,” said Croce.