Before this summer, even many Southern Californians had never heard of Bell, a modest Los Angeles suburb of 37,000 located near enough to the big city for views of the downtown skyscrapers. Then the Los Angeles Times ran a front-page story revealing that Bell’s city manager, Robert Rizzo, was receiving a salary of $787,637, while the police chief got $457,000 a year and the assistant city manager made $376,288.
Overnight, Bell became America’s most famous kleptocracy, featured in national publications and on network news programs. The quick resignations of the three hypercompensated civil servants failed to kill the story. Further efforts by Times reporters uncovered extravagant pay packages for other city employees, outlandish fringe benefits, and loans of public funds to city workers and favored businesses. The state attorney general filed a lawsuit against Rizzo and other Bell officials, while the Los Angeles County district attorney indicted him, the assistant city manager, and six current or former city council members on corruption charges. If none of those legal actions succeeds, taxpayers throughout California can expect to fund a pension for Rizzo worth $600,000 per year, according to the Times’s calculations, while the retired police chief makes ends meet on a pension of $411,000.
Bell’s all-you-can-eat personnel policies are outrageous but not surprising. The abuse of power, after all, is an endemic political problem, one so old that it’s often rendered in Juvenal’s Latin: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will guard the guardians themselves?
America’s answer to that question made its republic distinctively successful. If ambition could be made to counteract ambition, in James Madison’s formulation, then the guardians would guard one another, which was why Madison’s Constitution incorporated checks and balances. Madison saw these, however, as especially vital to the success of a distant national government, expecting that Americans would pay careful attention to the conduct of their own state and local governments. That’s exactly what Alexis de Tocqueville found during his trip through America 40 years later: “Municipal institutions constitute the strength of free nations. Town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach, they teach men how to use and how to enjoy it.”
Though fundamentally tawdry, the Bell scandal raises two important questions about the prospect of American self-government. First, can a post-Madisonian development in America—the professionalization of government that began a century ago—be reconciled to the Madisonian framework of counteracting ambitions? Second, can we still rely on conscientious civic engagement at the local level to be the elevating political force that Tocqueville applauded—and, if not, can our republic endure without it?
These are dilemmas much older than the plundering of one Los Angeles suburb. Even before the Constitution was 100 years old, America was undergoing profound changes that tested whether the political structures familiar to Madison and Tocqueville could continue to prevent the abuse of power. One of these changes was urbanization. The entire American population stood at just over 5 million people in 1800. By 1900, the three largest cities alone—Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York—had 6.4 million inhabitants.
The drivers of this population growth included waves of immigration, which transformed the homogeneous nation that Tocqueville analyzed into one of the world’s most diverse. The proportion of the American population born in other countries peaked at 14.8 percent in 1890, half again as high as it had been in 1850. (The figure in the 2000 census was 11.1 percent.) Some 14 million people immigrated between 1860 and 1900, many from countries in eastern and southern Europe, where government was something done to people, not by them. The presence of millions of novice democrats leading economically precarious lives in crowded cities quickly gave rise to the shock-and-awe corruption of political machines, exemplified by New York’s Tammany Hall.
These transformations convinced many Americans that it was no longer sufficient for the guardians to guard one other or realistic to believe that politically engaged citizens could scrutinize their behavior. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the progressive movement sought to solve the problem by making government, especially local government, less political. Regarding the superintendence of government as an essentially technical, rather than political, task, they decided to professionalize it.
Consider, in this light, Louis Brownlow, best known as the principal figure in the commission that President Roosevelt named in 1936—the Brownlow Committee—to reorganize the federal bureaucracy. Two years earlier, Brownlow had already weighed in on professionalization at the city level, welcoming changes that rendered municipal government “less legalistic, less partisan, and more technical.” Thus, he said, “let whoever will be mayor, but the bacteriologist in the health department, the chemist in the water department, the superintendent of schools and his teachers, the nurses in the city hospital—these must be technicians.” In large cities, professionals trained in the new discipline of public administration would run large departments and coordinate the provision of municipal services. In smaller ones, administration could be carried out by city managers, who “represent in their professional capacity” the “determination to keep the technical services of local government ‘out of politics,’ ” according to Brownlow.
The first of these city managers had been hired in 1906 by Staunton, Virginia. Soon the “council-manager plan” became the dominant template for governing small and medium-size cities. In that structure, the elected city council answers to a town’s citizens in the way that a corporation’s board of directors answers to its shareholders. The city manager, in turn, resembles a chief executive officer: a professional administrator who manages the delivery of public services, hired by and reporting to the city council.
Like the members of any profession, city managers are jealous about their reputation, and they rallied to defend themselves after the Bell story broke. An organization of public administrators in Los Angeles County published a letter less than a week after the initial Times story, contending that Bell’s government salaries were “outrageous and a huge aberration.” Girard Miller, a Governing columnist, wrote: “The vast majority of America’s public officials and public employees are more likely to be underpaid, not overpaid. In thousands of communities across America, most public officials, public managers and millions of public servants earn every penny of salary they receive. We need to curb the extreme abuses and go no further.”
The problem, however, is more fundamental than a few bad apples among legions of diligent officials. What Louis Brownlow welcomed, James Madison feared: a “will in the community independent of the majority” could, wrote Madison, embrace and act on “unjust views.” The very word “professional” points us to the great problem with the professionalization of government: though it can refer to a person with extensive training and expertise, it also distinguishes, from “amateur,” a person who performs activities for a living—for money. In the geography of public administration, a slippery slope separates the idealistic and rigorous from the self-serving. The calling begets a guild, which turns into a mutual protection society and winds up a racket.
For evidence of the racket, look to the documented cases of battered-taxpayer syndrome on the rise in places far from Bell. The Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, whose website declares that it has “one, constant focus—putting children at the center of education,” sued the city’s school district this year, demanding that it make erectile-dysfunction drugs like Viagra available through the teachers’ health insurance. The school board estimates that complying with the demand would cost as much as hiring a dozen entry-level teachers.
In Illinois, local officials are virtuosos in the art of “pension spiking.” The Chicago Tribune reports that the 55-year-old administrator of Bellwood, a predominantly black, working-class suburb just outside Chicago, retired this year with a pension of $252,689—based on a salary of $472,255 in 2009, boosted from $168,593 in 2005. In his final year of employment, this frantic go-getter was paid under ten different job titles. At the same time, one of the state’s most affluent cities, Highland Park, paid three park officials bonuses worth almost $700,000 as they got ready to retire. One 58-year-old official will receive a pension of $166,000—more than he ever made as an executive with the parks district until his final months on the job.
Back in California, the struggles of two public-administration students interning with a city council candidate in Orange County suggest the existence of related abuses in the state, less extreme but more common than Bell’s. According to Fred Smoller, the Brandman University professor directing the students’ program, it took them “nearly four months and hundreds of hours of work” to complete what should have been a simple project: gathering data on how much local city managers were paid. “While several cities cooperated, many others gave the students the runaround,” says Smoller. “Two cities charged for access to this information. Two others said that the public was not entitled to know the details of city-official compensation packages.” Several local officials, according to Smoller and the city council candidate, threatened the professor and his students, saying that publicizing the salary information would be a bad career move.
Some argue that the Bell story has less to do with the dangers of professionalizing government than with the town’s demographics. More than half of Bell’s residents are foreign-born (mostly from South and Central America), and nearly two-thirds over the age of 25 lack a high school diploma. Perhaps its residents were as vulnerable to Rizzo’s exploitation as Manhattan tenement dwellers once were to Boss Tweed’s. Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton accused the Rizzo gang of “ripping off vulnerable, uninformed taxpayers in one of the county’s poorest cities, exploiting their public trust and, sadly, apathy.” A crucial point on the road to the scandal was a 2005 special election in which residents voted to make Bell’s local government exempt from state laws on municipal compensation. The turnout in that election was fewer than 400 people—less than 5 percent of Bell’s registered voters.
But the incidents in Milwaukee, Bellwood, Highland Park, and Orange County suggest that the reassuring explanation—that Bell’s problems are due to unique circumstances; that those of us who live in more educated communities could never be fleeced by a manipulator like Rizzo—isn’t correct. They remind us that guarding the guardians has become harder everywhere.
For one thing, if “town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science,” as Tocqueville had it, then America has a long-term, worsening dropout problem. Apathy isn’t confined to poor or immigrant communities. Indeed, the word “community” is increasingly used, contrary to the term’s long history, to denote people who attend to things they have in common other than the affairs of the particular geographic location where they reside. Our time, attention, and affinities are not limitless, so as we increasingly concern ourselves with the environmentalist community, the bluegrass-music community, or the office-supplies wholesalers’ community, we have less left over for the patch-on-the-map communities where we live. Our waking hours are enveloped by communications technologies that Madison and Tocqueville couldn’t have imagined; we are a polity turned inside-out, familiar with the distant and estranged from the nearby. Americans are likelier to know the names of the president’s pets than to know those of their own city council members.
We rely on the media to conduct the due diligence that they distract us from doing ourselves. The Bell story was featured in the Los Angeles Times every day for weeks, and the journalists who broke it can start working on their Pulitzer acceptance speeches. But the Times, like all daily newspapers and television and radio stations, has only a fraction of the reporters, revenues, and resources that it once did. Had the Rizzo gang postponed its assault on Bell’s treasury until after a few more rounds of Times layoffs—or had it picked a more distant city to plunder, one policed by a mom-and-pop weekly instead of a metropolitan daily—its members might have retired happily and lavishly without ever having to answer for it.
The final lesson from the Bell story is that professionalism can do only so much good, and a considerable degree of harm, in obliging a government to control itself. Many educators, public safety and health officials, and administrators are professionals in the best sense, motivated by a sense of duty and a desire to serve the public honorably. In the absence of an avalanche of stories about other Bells, we can hope that only a small minority are professionals in the worst, most rapacious, sense of the term.
There’s a group in the middle, however. They may employ their professional training and specialized technical knowledge to solve problems, but they’re not above using such know-how to stifle criticism or impede scrutiny. Having chosen careers devoted to the public welfare, they lose the ability to distinguish what’s good for the public from what’s good for their own careers. They’re not necessarily cynical when they insist that it’s for the sake of schoolchildren that teachers must receive virtually automatic tenure after three years on the job. They may mean it when they say that the public sector cannot attract and retain the personnel it needs without offering health, retirement, and job-security benefits found nowhere else in the American economy. But being sincere isn’t the same as being right.
Yielding so much of the political space once occupied by elected officials to “disinterested experts”—who sometimes turn out to be neither—has harmed governance and civic engagement. This contention requires no illusions about the virtues of elected politicians. Having grown up in Chicago during the final years of America’s last graft- and patronage-based big-city machine, I understand the point of having a trained chemist monitoring the safety of the city’s drinking water, instead of handing the lab coat and test tubes to some alderman’s idiot nephew. Even as we cannot count on the guardians to guard themselves, however, we cannot rest assured that the professionals will professionalize themselves. Neither advanced degrees nor mid-career training programs that include ethics refresher courses will banish the danger that power will be abused.
The problem of power is inherently a political rather than a technical one. To survive, self-government requires citizens who understand that their rights are never finally secure and that their civic duties can never be safely delegated.