Photo by Makena Huey
The Pepperdine School of Public Policy is hosting a symposium on Nov. 12 called “From Kleptocracy to Democracy: Corruption & Community in the City of Bell,” demonstrating to students the importance of informed citizenship.
The event will focus on the speaker Fred Smoller, an associate professor of political science at Chapman University, and his new book, From Kleptocracy to Democracy: How Citizens Can Take Back Local Government, which explores one of the worst municipal scandals in the 20th century and its impact on democracy. In July 2010, the Los Angeles Times exposed the political corruption in the small city of Bell, California, where local government officials were paying themselves over one million dollars per year.
Pete Peterson, the dean of the Pepperdine School of Public Policy, said he invited Smoller to speak at the symposium because he wants people to remember the corruption that happened in Bell and the people who sacrificed to recover the city. The free event will be held in SPP 171 on Drescher Campus from noon to 1 p.m.
“Democracy is dying and before it dies completely, I am hoping this generation will revive it,” Smoller said.
“Democracy is dying and before it dies completely, I am hoping this generation will revive it.”
During the symposium, Smoller will discuss the corruption and recovery in Bell through the lens of his book. It analyzes the civic malfunctions that cause exploitation while educating students to resist political depravity by remaining involved in their local government, Smoller said.
Smoller said the purpose of his lecture is to show students that although the federal government receives more attention, the local government is equally important and impacts our lives more directly.
It is important for students to be aware of Bell’s history because local government is “the only level of government that people can actually create and is where many students will actually end up working,” Smoller said.
Smoller said he hopes his lecture will convey to students the importance of being an informed citizen by showing them the consequences of what happens when they are not. Eighteen to 24-year-olds have the worst voting turnout and Bell proves that when people exit politics, everything falls apart. People are limiting freedom of the press and the democratic process.
“The part that I’m most proud of is that the people who won back democracy are Dreamers – first generation hispanics and muslims,” Smoller said. “I think I have some insights students will appreciate about how the American dream is still alive.”
Students can assess their community’s health by being engaged – examining voting turnouts and election cancellations, remaining aware of office appointments and city managers, and asking questions about their local government, Smoller said.
Smoller said he hopes professors at the School of Public Policy will maintain awareness about Bell by incorporating his book into their curriculum and that students planning to attend the lecture will research the scandal.
“I hope I’ll get a good audience with good questions,” Smoller said. “I am grateful for the invitation and I am really looking forward to speaking.”
During the Bell scandal’s exposure, Dean Peterson was executive director of the Davenport Institute, responsible for training local government leaders to improve public processes. Peterson said the new interim city manager of Bell, Ken Kampian, asked him to serve on the city’s advisory board and create a public budgeting process.
Peterson taught Bell residents about the budget and encouraged feedback, facilitating the healing between citizens and local government by gradually rebuilding trust. Today, Bell has better leadership and the citizens are engaged, creating a true success story, Peterson said.
“I want the full story told, which is what [Smoller] is going to do,” Peterson said. “It wasn’t just a story of corruption, it was a story of rebuilding trust because Bell exists today.”
While society underestimates the local government’s importance, many SPP graduates hold positions at the local level, where the impact of their work is more visible, Peterson said.
“Pepperdine has been about preparing people for lives of purpose, service and leadership, and all of those three things broke down in Bell,” Peterson said. “The purpose was wrong, the sense of service was lost and there was no leadership.”
“Pepperdine has been about preparing people for lives of purpose, service and leadership, and all of those three things broke down in Bell.”
The lecture will aim to prevent this type of democratic tragedy from reoccurring. “I think that what we try to do here certainly is to prepare leaders who not only know the right policy decisions to make, but also how to lead in an ethical way,” Peterson said.
First-year SPP students Lilly Monterrosa and Brandon Burns say they are looking forward to the symposium.
On-campus events are accessible opportunities for students to learn about issues they would not typically have the time to research, Burns said.
“The School of Public Policy tries to bring in diverse perspectives and… experts to explain what their field is like and what the problems and challenges that they face in their field are,” Monterrosa said. The lectures provide an opportunity for students to engage in dialogue, which allows them to solve problems in their future careers.
“We should be aware of [local government] because they really are the things that affect you the most on a day to day level,” Burns said. “It’s important for students to know what’s going on in their communities, especially because they have the ability to go home and change it.”
“It’s important for students to know what’s going on in their communities, especially because they have the ability to go home and change it.”
Monterrosa said she plans to attend the lecture because she has interned for her local government and comes from an immigrant neighborhood where officials are trying to earn residents’ trust.
“If we talk about corruption and be honest about it, then I think that can help build up the relationship between constituency and local government,” Monterrosa said.