BELL — Although the city is in good financial shape following the scandal of 2010, three City Council members face a challenge from eight candidates in the March 3 municipal election.
Seeking re-election are Mayor Nestor Valencia and City Council members Violeta Alvarez and Ali Saleh. They were first elected in the 2011 recall of former council members Oscar Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo, George Mirabal and Luis Artiga.
Challenging the incumbents are Alfred Areyan, a carpenter; Isamar Arambula, a community youth organizer; Jorge Fiffe, the manager of a nonprofit agency; Donna Gannon, retired; Fidencio (Joel) Gallardo, a high school teacher; Yamel (Jimmy) Mourad, a businessman; Marcos A. Oliva, a program analyst; and Donald Tavares, a truck driver.
Residents also will vote on whether to change the 2005 City Charter, believed by some as a tool that gave former City Manager Robert Rizzo too much power and authority.
Saleh is a graduate of Bell High School. He is one of three sons of immigrants from Southern Lebanon who came to the United States in the 1970s.
“In Bell it doesn’t matter if your roots are from Tennessee, Lebanon, or Mexico, it doesn’t matter if you’re Christian or Muslim,” Saleh said. “Bell is a place where hard-working people of all walks of life live together. Where our differences give us [flavor], but our similarities give us strength,” he said.
Saleh is an active member of his local mosque, the father of three sons and a daughter, a founding member of the community group BASTA (Bell Association to Stop the Abuse), and has been recognized as Democrat of the Year.
Valencia said his goals are to lower taxes, create a new downtown and establish more parks using grant funds.
He was born in Cihuatlan, Jalisco, Mexico. His parents immigrated to the United States in 1969 and initially lived in Compton, then settled in Bell in 1975.
Valencia attended local public schools and graduated from Bell High School in 1983. He went onto San Jose State University and earned a bachelor of science degree in health science with an emphasis in health care management.
Valencia has coached soccer and other sports in the city’s recreational services program, has volunteered as board director to a local health care clinic providing family medicine.
He is married and is raising two daughters who attending local public schools.
Alvarez, who served as mayor during the past year, said her years as an elected official have been a time of growth and reform for the city.
“I ran for elected office because I believe we can reform and rebuild Bell into a model city,” she said. “But more importantly, it was important to me that any rebuilding efforts reflect the needs of the residents and families that live in Bell, as well as those of our local merchants.”
Bell’s economic development continues to be a top priority for Alvarez, who added the city must support growth opportunities for existing merchants and to create incentives to draw new businesses and shoppers to the region.
That includes maintaining quality public safety services as well as enhanced beautification efforts, Alvarez said.
She is the mother of a 13 year-old son and 24 year-old daughter.
Areyan, a Bell resident for 40 years, attended Bell High School, joined the Army in 1973 and received an honorable discharge.
He supports the proposed city charter change, saying the wrongdoings of Rizzo stemmed from a 2005 charter, which gave administrators more power.
Areyan said he is concerned about a “lack of governance and accountability.”
He said the current City Council is “doing the best it can,” but said there is too much bickering among members.
“It should be we, not me,” he said. “The council should work together for the good of the community.”
Areyan also voices concern about complacency among voters today, saying “we need to get the vote out, inform and teach the people on the issues.”
Fiffe was raised in Bell, graduated from Bell High School and went on to earn a bachelor of arts degree from UC Riverside and a master’s in visual arts from Rutgers University before returning to Bell in 2010. He was an unsuccessful council candidate in 2011.
He said he does not support the proposed charter change because its provisions were decided by city administration and the City Council and not from community input.
He said he is running for the council out of concern for the future and doesn’t believe the current body is doing enough to control spending.
Fiffe said a sound fiscal policy would encourage businesses to come into the city and be welcome here.
Fiffe currently serves as the development director for the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation.
He is the oldest child of nine and from a family that emigrated from Cuba.
Gallardo, a 20-year resident of the city, grew up in Bell, graduated from Bell High School and went on to earn a bachelor of arts degree in English from USC and a master’s from Cal State Los Angeles. He teaches at South Gate High School.
“I am running because the city has a lot of changes to be made, but has some space to bring in economic development.”
He said he supports the proposed city charter change as a means to “undo what we inherited from the Rizzo administration, such as the ability of administrators to raise salaries.
“We also need to pay off some $30 million in bonds sold for the proposed Sports Center, which was never built,” he said.
Gallardo calls for expansion of the police department, saying “we need more police officers.”
The proposed charter changes are encapsulated as Measure C on the ballot and calls for a yes or no vote on making the changes proposed.
One of the proposed charter changes would prevent a council member from earning a higher salary if they are on the governing body that approved it. Any increase approved would be limited to future council members. And council members would not receive any added pay for serving on commissions.
It also proposes that a Planning Commission be established with each council member appointing a member. Currently, the City Council sits as the Bell Planning Commission.
Also, the vacant post of assistant city administrator would be eliminated and the new charter would require that in a recall election, prospective new council members would have to run on the ballot along with the officials targeted by the recall.
Other changes include not indemnifying council members by providing legal services should they be accused of criminal acts later.
The charter would allow candidates to run for council who have lived in Bell at least 30 days, down from the previous 60 days.
Also the changed charter would require that the city follow state law, adopt a set of ethical standards for elected officials and city employees and require a public hearing when any franchise is awarded. Also, any franchise awarded by the council cannot be automatically renewed and can be no longer than 10 years,
Officials have suggested a second phase in which public hearings would be held to get input from residents on other charter provisions, which could be voted on in the November 2016 election.
Challengers Arambula, Gannon, Tavares and Mourad could not be reached for information for this story.