Angry Residents of California City Vote on Council Recall

By John Rogers | March 8, 2011 | 2:31 PM EST

Bell, Calif. (AP) - Voters had a chance to clean house Tuesday after months of outrage directed at a city government that turned the modest Southern California suburb of Bell into the national poster child for municipal corruption.

They went to the polls in a recall election involving four City Council members who have pleaded not guilty in an ongoing case to dozens of charges of fraud and misappropriation of public funds.

Authorities say the council members were among a group of current and former city officials who stole more than $5.5 million from Bell by paying themselves enormous salaries.

Councilmember Lorenzo Velez has not been charged and was seeking re-election Tuesday.

Mayor Oscar Hernandez and Councilman George Mirabal had been up for re-election but decided not to run after the scandal broke. Councilman Luis Artiga, whose term would have expired in 2013, resigned after he and the others were arrested. Their names remained on the recall ballot.

Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo, whose term also expires in 2013, chose to remain in office and fight the recall.

The recall effort was launched last summer after residents learned the four part-time council members were making $100,000 a year and giving annual salary and compensation packages of hundreds of thousands of dollars to a handful of city employees.

A total of 17 replacement candidates were on the ballot, including an attorney, high school English teacher, construction contractor, truck driver, social worker, retired baker and environmental activist.

"This really did bring our community together," longtime resident Alfred Areyan said. "Now I'm just hoping we pick the right people."

The recall initially united thousands of people in this city where one in six people live in poverty, but alliances have frayed in recent weeks as candidates have hurled increasingly vitriolic claims at one another.

Meanwhile, one of the front-runners, Miguel Sanchez, died last week at age 34. Friends said he had complained of flulike symptoms before being hospitalized Friday.

His name will remain on the ballot to replace Jacobo, if she is recalled. If Sanchez wins, the new City Council must then decide whether to appoint a successor or schedule another election to replace him.

Just when a new council could be sworn in was uncertain.

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

"There are some challenges with that, but we're slogging through it," interim City Attorney Jamie Casso has said. "We think we'll come up with an option or two this week."