Atlantic Cities
Democracy in America

California's Plan to Crack Down on Troublesome Cities

California's Plan to Crack Down on Troublesome Cities
Fred Prouser / Reuters

California is about to start keeping a more watchful eye on its cities. Ever since a troublemaking set of public officials in the small city of Bell were caught in a corruption scandal involving exorbitant salaries and unlawful taxes, cities across the Golden State have been facing additional scrutiny. Now the state is stepping in with a new law intended to make sure no other cities follow in Bell’s footsteps.

The new law, signed earlier this week by Governor Jerry Brown, authorizes the creation of a program to audit local government agencies deemed to be at a high risk of fraud, waste, abuse or mismanagement. This state-led audit authority would be called into action at the will of the state auditor. It targets Bell-like abuses of power, and, as the text of the bill states, any publicly created entity “that has major challenges associated with its economy, efficiency, or effectiveness.”

The bill was authored by Assembly member Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), whose district includes Bell. The corruption scandal in Bell had been the focus of dozens of angry public meetings in the city, as well as the pending trial of eight city officials. The resulting mistrust of local government in Bell is partially what prompted Lara to craft the law.

“[It] will help restore the public’s trust in those who hold public office,” Lara said in a statement. “It provides the State Auditor with the capacity to examine high risk situations before they become explosive and taxpayers are left holding the bag.”

California's state auditor already had the power to identify and audit high risk entities at the state level, but the new law extends that power to local jurisdictions and agencies. The costs associated with such investigations are an issue, with state audits generally costing about $100 per hour and running between 2,000 and 5,000 each. But when compared with the legal costs of the Bell aftermath, or dealing with a city like Vallejo which declared bankruptcy in 2008, audits are much more appealing.

At the city level, the law makes sense for a lot of places, according to Sharon Erickson, city auditor for the City of San Jose. Unlike her city, many smaller municipalities in the state don’t have their own auditor. This new authority would be able to fill those gaps, as needed. But even cities with their own auditors could be subject to further investigation by the state auditor if necessary.

“If it’s daylighting an issue that needs to be daylighted, whether it’s in my city or another city, I think we would all welcome that,” Erickson says.

She’s happy with the fact that the state auditor will be conducting local audits as a result of this new law. But exactly how the state will decide which cities to audit, and when, remains to be seen.

“Is Vallejo already on that list?” Erickson asks. “Is Bell?”

Above: Former Los Angeles County district attorney Steve Cooley announces the arrests of eight Bell city officials at a September 2010 news conference in Los Angeles

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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