City of Bell in L.A. County is learning the SLO way of governing

One recent Saturday morning, dozens of Bell residents huddled around small tables to discuss hopes for their beleaguered city, whose leaders for the longest time didn’t want to know what citizens had to say.

Among them sat three San Luis Obispo residents who have volunteered countless hours and resources to help Bell and its residents journey forward.

Former San Luis Obispo City Manager Ken Hampian, former Finance Director Bill Statler and current Planning Commissioner Michael Mulatri have volunteered their time by assisting the city near Los Angeles after a shocking scandal exposed excessive salaries of its administrators and council.

The city’s name has become synonymous with corruption. It conjures images of dishonest politicians sitting in courtrooms, accused of malfeasance after malfeasance.

The bureaucratic disorder left behind is slowly being unraveled by dozens of past and present former city administrators from throughout the state who have offered to step up and help.

For the first time in the city’s history, the Bell community, led by Hampian and Statler, was invited to participate in a goal-setting forum modeled after the process used in San Luis Obispo.

Fifty people showed up, in the pouring rain, to take part.

“The city has gone from no citizen involvement to one of the better goal-setting processes anywhere,” Hampian said. “The citizens had never been asked what they wanted.”

Their goals were similar to those routinely made in other cities: better recreation programs for youth and seniors, a review of city salary structures, economic development, no new taxes.

“This is not an affluent community and the former administrators were taking from people who can ill afford the impacts,” Statler said.

All three men agree that the scandal there was offensive to anyone who has ever worked in public service — which is why they’ve decided to volunteer their time to help.

“Bell isn’t recovering because we are there, they have reclaimed their government and are working to make it better,” Hampian said.

Hampian, who served as the acting chief administrative officer for Bell in August, said watching the city start to rebuild is inspiring.

The community elected a City Council that is slowly starting to untangle the years of mismanagement.

“Ken is very helpful, supportive and knowledgeable,” Bell Mayor Ali Saleh said. “When he came into the city, he helped put it on life support.”

Saleh said other community leaders have also lent their support — many of them for free — and it has helped dramatically.The goal-setting forum facilitated by Hampian and Statler was a “historic” event, said Saleh, because the community had never had that opportunity.

“There are two ways to avoid what happened in Bell,” Statler said. “Community engagement and transparent governance.’’Slowly, the community is beginning to trust again — in part because of the guidance outside leaders have offered.

“People only seem to talk about how the city went bad,” Saleh said. “We are now able to say what we want in the future and starting to work toward it. We really want to be a model city for good governance in local politics.”

Hampian said the city is on its way to exactly that.

“There are a lot of land mines out there, but they are on their way back,” Hampian said. “They are a real reason for hope.”