Longtime San Mateo city manager Arne Croce is now sharing his time helping get the corruption-ridden city of Bell back on its feet.
Croce, who has 35 years of experience as a city manager, served as San Mateo’s city manager for 18 years before going on to other roles, which included his position as interim city manager of Bell. He recently spoke to the Sunrise Rotary Club of San Mateo about his experiences with the city, which experienced several years of misappropriation of public funds by eight city officials. Former city manager Robert Rizzo and his assistant siphoned off more than $6.7 million before the public scandal emerged in the summer of 2010.
“It’s the first time I’ve been able to talk about Bell since the story has concluded,” said Croce, 62, who spent 10 months rehabilitating Bell. “The justice system has run its course.”
The officials in the small Los Angeles County city were convicted of their crimes in 2013. Sentencing is still being awaited for some though. The case was described as “corruption on steroids.” Councilmembers received “special compensation” for heading districts and pensions were enriched.
“I had just celebrated my 60th birthday and returned from a trip to Kosovo and I told my wife I was trying to figure out what to do when I grew up,” he said. “While Bell may be extreme, it’s not unique. …It was completely foreign to me in my career in city government though.”
In 2011, he was asked to assist with recovering Bell, which had been completely dismantled by the former government. The city had controlled all activities and manipulated and managed elections.
“Stealing money was the least damaging thing they did,” Croce said. “They did a systematic dismantling of the civic system and there was no way for people to get access to city government. There were no more committees and there was an absence of traditional service groups; there was no Little League or AYSO.”
He noted city officials kept an air of poverty to hide the corruption. City employees were encouraged not to dress very nicely.
“The carpet (at City Hall) had not been cleaned in 15 years,” he said. “That’s not a metaphor.”
Left in the wake of the scandal were citizens unused to process, Croce had a difficult job in transitioning the city and building a foundation for the government. When he came to the city, there were many vacant positions, which needed to be filled including chief of police and community development director positions.
“They had developed a cult-like environment,” he said. “They had a charismatic leader who took care of you if you worked for the city. … Some staff told me, ‘many of us wept when Mr. Rizzo was arrested because we couldn’t imagine such a good man would do something like this.’”
But, as things unraveled, they felt betrayed. Rizzo’s crimes themselves unraveled with hubris and miscalculation, Croce said. Rizzo was about to retire within a year, he said.
“The fun part of the job was that I got to assemble a dream team of interim department heads to get Bell back on track,” he said. “We brought the community in to do civic training, developed job descriptions, recruited city managers, came up with new contracts and lowered outrageous property tax assessment rates.”
There was quite a bit of community engagement and education, he said. Sky-high building permit fees were lowered and other changes were made.
“A lot of progress was made,” he said. “They’re still getting over the hangover of audits and lawsuits. … It was the only city I was aware of that used armed police officers to come pay for business licenses. They have a long way to go; it is a divided community.”
The first election since the revolution, as Croce calls it, took place in March 2013.
“Most cities are worried about the future, but in Bell, divisions fall on how do we reconcile and deal with the past,” he said. “It really was a fascinating experience, but I’m sorry the citizens of Bell had to go through what they did.”
Now, Croce is the executive director of Peninsula Family Service, a nonprofit that provides skills and resources for children, families and older adults in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.
“It’s great to be back in the San Mateo community, working for a nonprofit with a rich history of helping families along the Peninsula.”
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