Opinion Columns & Blogs

Ex-SLO City Manager Ken Hampian compelled to help Bell

Ken Hampian, the former city manager of San Luis Obispo, is beat. It’s not the 167 miles he’s just driven from a small city in Los Angeles County. Nor is it necessarily the grueling 15-hour days he’s been voluntarily working for the past month — although such a regimen would be enough to physically drain anyone half his age.

No, as Hampian sits down and talks about his stint as a pinch-hitting city manager for the scandal-ridden city of Bell, he’s mentally exhausted.

As he talks of his role in helping start a process of cleaning up a municipal mess that may take years to unravel and set straight (including finding a longer-term interim city manager), his eyes tear up. His empathy for the 35,477 residents of Bell — who had been treated like wayward children and financially fleeced by Bell’s former City Manager Robert Rizzo — is palpable.

Toward that end, he explains, “My best experience during the past month has been getting to know the residents and employees of Bell. Every time you see a headline (about the city or scandal), they get a pie in the face. They’re warm people. How many communities would be appreciative of a bunch of bureaucrats showing up?”

It’s a good question. Answer? Probably not many, if today’s negative attitude toward the public sector is any indication.

But Hampian decided enough was enough when it came to the tarring that Rizzo had brought to Bell and to his profession.

Not surprisingly, Hampian had been asked on a fairly regular basis to sit in as an interim city manager — or consultant — for various cities around the state since he retired last January. He hadn’t bitten.

“But I couldn’t resist Bell,” he said. “It was so desperately in need, so abused by someone who called himself a city manager, that I tapped into my early idealism and decided it was an opportunity to give back.”

That meant working for free — with the exception of Bell picking up the costs of his $58-a-night motel, cell phone, mileage and meal costs.

The Associated Press and Los Angeles Times have carried stories of Hampian working pro bono for Bell. The understated inference is one of incredulity. Something along the lines of: You mean a public servant would actually work for free? Why (sputter, dribble), the earth’s polarity must be reversing next!

It appears Hampian may have set the bar for idealism and giving back. Take Al Venegas, deputy chief of police for Santa Monica. He walked in and said to Hampian: “Ken, I’m here for two weeks. What do you want me to do?”

Venegas, Hampian said, “is a great guy with no ego. He worked with little more than a card table as a desk, staying late, showing up early and taking his vacation to do so.”

As it turned out, dozens of public servants volunteered their time to try to make sense of what Rizzo had done during the 17 years he treated Bell as his private fiefdom.

A short, rotund man, Rizzo pulled down more than $1 million a year in salary and compensation, approved by a virtually hand-picked City Council that took home six-figure salaries as a reward.

When not raising nine thoroughbred horses on his Washington ranch, Rizzo was indebting the city to the tune of millions of dollars in bonds, partially paid for by exorbitant utility taxes, sales taxes and the second highest property taxes in L.A. County. He and seven other city officials are currently facing a slew of charges.

When Hampian showed up, he found Bell’s city government to be close to zero.

“People would come to me with problems,” he explained, “and I’d ask for a policy. And there wasn’t one. Human resources, purchasing, recreation field use (‘How do you set fees?’), employment policies — (Rizzo) was making it up as he went along. Employees were trained to take everything to the city manager. There were no department heads, no policies.”

When Hampian asked city staff for records, he was shown a room filled with haphazardly strewn boxes; Rizzo wouldn’t even allow the purchase of shelves in which to catalog the city’s business.

Although Rizzo and his cohorts’ pay may have been the catalyst that touched off subsequent investigations and indictments, Hampian sees Bell’s problems through a more complicated prism.

“An extreme amount of pay can be fixed overnight,” he said. “Fixing the other problems will take far longer, maybe years, and cost much more — if they can be fixed.

“For example, the internal destruction of effective hierarchy; grant violations that need to be paid back; expired contracts that will need to be rebid and fixed; borderline contracts that are still in place; the destruction of normal organizational policies and procedures to guide decisions; poor office conditions and technology; the abuse of people and power both internally and externally; the ill-conceived property acquisitions; the bond burdens; the betrayal of public trust that has led to an unhealthy level of distrust in the community; and the lack of respect and shame that the Bell community and employees must endure.”

“It’s going to take years to fix the many problems Rizzo created.”

That said, Hampian has hope for Bell. He believes the integrity of the new City Council — although untried as elected officials — is a good first step and the new mayor, Ali Saleh, is intelligent and committed to good governance. And it’s certainly a plus that the city has hired Arne Croce, former city manager of San Mateo — who, Hampian said, is “one of the most respected city managers in California.” Croce will fill in on an interim capacity until a permanent city manager is hired.

“Serving in Bell was not like a job or, heaven help me, a consulting gig,” Hampian said. “It was just so wrong and sad. When the dust settles, I hope to make more sense of it all.”

Bill Morem can be reached at bmorem@thetribunenews.com or at 781-7852.