Los Angeles Times reporters Ruben Vives and Jeff Gottlieb were investigating a story in Maywood, California when they came across an even better story in the town next door, Bell. It was a story that began with basic City Hall beat reporting and led to voters removing the entire city council. Monday, the Times won a Public Service Pulitzer Prize for the work.
The Times team discovered that Bell, California — one of the poorest communities in Los Angeles County — was paying its top city officials some of the highest public salaries in the nation. The stories that started running in June 2010 spiraled into town hall protests and a full-blown scandal involving, among others, City Manager Robert Rizzo, who received annual compensation of $1.5 million. As part of his deal, The Times reported that the city manager would get 107 vacation days and 36 sick days a year.
Days after the first story was published, the Bell city manager, the assistant city manager and the police chief resigned.
The story broke while California was in the midst of a financial meltdown. A budget crisis threatened Bell’s essential services, but Vives and Gottlieb found that Bell’s part-time City Council members took home $100,000 a year. The Times put the salary in context by reporting that elected officials in similar-sized towns make about $5,000 a year.
LATimes.com’s Anthony Pesce produced useful interactive graphics that allow readers to see how a city councilman racks up $100,000 in pay and benefits. The team also compiled salaries of other city managers in the area to show how out of line Bell was. Other interactives included a chart showing Bell’s tax rates — the second highest in Los Angeles County.
“It helps to put the story in perspective,” Gottlieb told me. “We used a lot of graphics in reporting this story, in the paper and online. Truthfully, some of the data is stuff we got, but sometimes it was the graphics people who were tracking down the data.” Gottlieb explains that the Times has graphics reporters who are “experts in explaining.”
“One of the dynamics that we had covering this story is that in order to have a page A1 story in the paper, you have to file by 2:30 p.m.,” Gottlieb said. “So it makes it difficult for us to be real involved in the graphics, we depend on the graphics reporters to help tell the story.”
After waiting weeks for the City of Bell to respond to repeated open records requests, Gottlieb and Vives added fuel to the public’s outrage by reporting that the scandal was not over. They reported:
“The city’s director of administrative services, Lourdes Garcia, was earning $422,707, and the director of general services, Eric Eggena, earned $421,402, officials said. Those amounts include salary, deferred compensation and some benefits, which city officials did not fully detail.”
“In addition, Bell’s director of community services, Annette Peretz, earned $273,542, a deputy city engineer earned $247,573, the business development coordinator earned $295,627, a police captain earned $238,075 and a police lieutenant earned $229,992. Their names were not immediately released.”
Gottlieb and Vives used video to tell the story. They interviewed Bell residents who were protesting at city council meetings.
Once the Bell city salaries became public, town activists began filing open records requests to learn more. The City of Bell was often slow to respond to public records requests so the Times created a tool to help citizens get the answers they deserve.
“As part of our coverage, we created a public records request form, to help people to get information from their local governments. One of our city desk assistants still answers those calls and helps people with their public records filings,” Gottlieb said.
Then, the Times created a special online DocumentCloud section where readers can share public documents they discover. The section also teaches readers about their rights to read public information and explains what California law says about open records and open meetings. The special section includes public documents that Times reporters obtain on a wide range of topics. The Times used the section to post official documents from the Bell scandal including this one, the indictment handed down against the City Manager.
One of the more recent documents Gottlieb and Vives filed shows that Bell police officers set up a sort of competition, turning speeding tickets and impounding vehicles into a game.
Just 10 days before the Pulitzer Board announced the 2011 prizes, five new Bell, California city council members took the oath of office and named a new town mayor. Four of the five members they replaced now face corruption charges and are under a judge’s order not to come near City Hall. The four council members, along with two former councilmen and the City Manager and his assistant, all face criminal charges related to their salaries.