The Bell Tolls for Bell

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

Would you be happy to find out Antonio Villaraigiosa were paid $800 thousand a year to be mayor of LA?

Probably not. You'd be mad. Don't worry. He only makes a fraction of that to run the country's second biggest city.

Now imagine you live in the tiny city of Bell, California – population about 40,000 – and you find out that your top city official there really does make $800 grand.

You'd probably be very mad. With plenty of justification.

That $800 grand is more, I'd guess, than the household income of anyone who lives in Bell, which is one of the poorer cities in Los Angeles County.

The city manager who gets the paycheck, his name is Robert Rizzo, doesn't live there himself. He drives home to Orange County, to posh Huntington Beach, where he was just one of the affluent locals until his name recently hit the media.

His assistant makes more than double what Villaraigosa makes. And Bell's police chief makes more than the head of the LAPD, the NYPD or the FBI.

We've heard of all this lately because of some good, solid reporting by the Los Angeles Times. The paper sent reporters in to see what was happening in Bell and hasn't let up, running story after story and throwing fuel on a much-needed citizen uprising there.

The overpaid officials have all said they'll resign and they might face scrutiny from the DA and questions about their pensions. And today even Attorney General Jerry Brown said he'll investigate Bell.

But before you get all inspired and warm inside about a triumph of gutty journalism, think about this.

The rip-off artists that run the city of Bell got away with their scheme this long largely because the LA Times reduced and finally abandoned its local coverage in cities like Bell.

City Halls in Santa Monica and Pasadena will still see an occasional Times reporter, just because their cities are so large and big news sometimes happens there.

News happens too in places like Bell and Monrovia and El Segundo, and in all of the 88 cities that make up the county. But if the Times hears about it, it's likely to be because a much smaller newspaper, or a website or a blogger, wrote about it.

And in many places, even that doesn't happen. The Times has been shrinking for a decade and one of the first places its owners and editors chose to abandon was the small cities.

The local papers that use to pick up the slack, almost every single one of them, have cut back more than the Times has.

Without media coverage, the men and women who control these cities have felt free to do what they want.

And by the way, none of this happened overnight. Six years ago, I interviewed DA Steve Coooley about his efforts to bust up corruption in the small cities.

He got indictments and won convictions. It was low-hanging fruit even then, he said.

So the Times should be congratulated for discovering Bell's problems. But before they accept any Pulitzers, they should also be asked what they plan to do for an encore. And for an apology as well.

You can go to tell us what you think.

For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.