‘Bell’s money flowed uphill’ (July 27)

The following is an analysis that is part of a graduate thesis. Learn more.

The headline to this story didn’t clue the reader to the issue to be addressed. The story began by describing budget reductions:

At the same time that top Bell officials were receiving some of the fattest municipal salaries in the nation, the city cut spending on police, social services, and parks and recreation, according to interviews and records reviewed by The Times. (1)

Paragraph 4 linked the reductions to a larger concern: “The cuts underscore questions about how Bell handled its finances in recent years.” So the issue the story addressed was, “How have Bell’s finances been handled in recent years?” The reporters drew three conclusions.

The first conclusion was the descriptive one in the lede: Bell reduced spending in some departments at the same time its officials were highly paid.

The claim that “top Bell officials were receiving some of the fattest municipal salaries in the nation” raised the same difficulties it did in the first story in the series: the ambiguity of “top officials” and the as-yet unknown national rank of the Bell salaries. The present story didn’t add any backing for the claim, but it could be taken as true at least arguendo.

What evidence was presented to show that the city cut spending in the categories the reporters listed? The evidence was strong. The reporters clearly cited “Bell’s Comprehensive Financial Report for fiscal year 2009” as showing that “community services, including social services and recreation programs, were cut by 21%, or $593,438, while public safety took a 3.7% hit, or $228,888. Police training was whacked by 58%” (6–7).

The reporters’ second conclusion, also a descriptive conclusion, was found in paragraph 9: “The report provides a less rosy picture of Bell’s finances than the one city officials have offered in recent weeks.” What support was given to readers for this second conclusion?

To start, readers needed to know the “picture of Bell’s finances” painted by city officials that the reporters challenged. The paint came from a few places in the story.

Back in paragraph 4, “city officials” were paraphrased as saying the city “avoid[ed] many of the cuts and financial problems surrounding cities have faced amid the recession” (paraphrased as part of their defense of “Rizzo’s high salary”). In paragraph 10, Bell Mayor Oscar Hernandez (again, also defending Rizzo) said the city had “15 years of balanced budgets” and had become a “model of financial prudence.” In paragraph 11, Rizzo was paraphrased as saying “no full-time employees had been laid off and that there were no furloughs,” and “Hernandez, Rizzo and Councilman Luis Artiga boasted about the city’s services, parks and sound financial footing.”

Next, readers needed to know what in the report was “less rosy” than what the city officials were quoted or described as saying. The story, however, cited the report only in the paragraph referenced above, detailing reductions in community service and public safety spending. Was that citation enough to demonstrate that “the report provides a less rosy picture of Bell’s finances than the one city officials have offered”? Hardly.

The city officials did not boast of, or at least were not quoted as boasting of, a lucrative budget or flush coffers. They were quoted only as crediting Bell with “balanced budgets” and “financial prudence.” It seemed, then, that the possibility of spending cuts like those the report described, especially in a recession, was accounted for in what Bell officials told the reporters.

If the reporters still wanted to say the report said “less rosy” things than the officials, they would have to ask readers to accept a prescriptive assumption that balancing budgets should never include spending cuts. To be sure, readers could have accepted that prescriptive assumptions but the reporters, at least, provided no reason for them to do so.

The city officials also claimed that Bell had “avoid[ed] many of the cuts … surrounding cities have faced amid the recession.” That claim was not the same as “Bell avoided cuts during the recession,” which would have been a rosier claim than the report bore out. But officials said only that the cuts were not as bad as they could have been, which was not disproved by merely showing that Bell faced cuts.

To try to disprove it, the reporters could have, at a minimum, compared Bell’s spending reductions to those of the “surrounding cities.” This request seems reasonable in light of the Times‘s July 15 story, where reporters compared the salaries of Rizzo and others to their counterparts. That story indicated that comparison was a tool in the reporters’ argumentative kit.

Finally, Bell officials also said the city avoided other “financial problems” faced by surrounding cities. “Financial problems” was not clearly defined by the reporters. But one way the term could be defined is an unbalanced budget or a budget deficit. Under those definitions, the reporters would have had more work to do in demonstrating that the officials were rosier than the report, because, as the reporters noted, “Bell has a balanced budget” (9).

The reporters’ third conclusion was in the sentence just quoted: “While Bell has a balanced budget, it has also faced significant belt-tightening” (9). In other words, the conclusion was “Bell has faced significant belt-tightening.”

This conclusion contained two important ambiguities. The first ambiguity was “significant,” which is a relative term for which no scale was given (and it was the lack of scale that was problematic, not the use of the ambiguous but lively term “significant”). That is, “significant on what scale?”

The second ambiguity was in the paragraph as a whole, which read:

The report provides a less rosy picture of Bell’s finances than the one city officials have offered in recent weeks. While Bell has a balanced budget, it has also faced significant belt-tightening.

It wasn’t clear whether the reporters’ justification for claiming “significant belt-tightening” could be found in the report or in the other parts of their story as well. But the strongest possible reconstruction of the argument would have come from incorporating evidence throughout the story, and so that is what will happen here.

Evidence for the claim that Bell had significantly tightened its belt came from three places. The first place was, again, the report, which described spending reductions. The reductions certainly qualified as “belt-tightening.” But “significant belt-tightening”? Who knows? It was almost as if readers were encouraged to fill in whatever definition of “significant” they would conjure and assume that those were the changes Bell made. Again, a comparison with other cities or a definition of some scale of “significance” would have facilitated acceptance of the conclusion.

The second location of evidence was a description from Gilbert Jara of the Bell Police Officers Association. Jara was paraphrased as saying that “the cuts included layoffs of some non-sworn employees, and have had other ill effects.”

“Every year we are supposed to update our training,” Jara said. “It has now gotten down to where they give us a CD to watch and say, ‘OK, that’s your training.’ We watch a CD for three or four hours and that’s it.”

Officers are supposed to get quarterly firing-range training but “are lucky to get there once a year,” he said. Many of the department’s 24 authorized positions are left perennially unfilled, he said, and officers drive patrol cars “with like 200,000 miles on them.” (12–14)

The trouble with accepting this evidence as dispositive was the same trouble as the with report’s evidence: belt-tightening, yes. Significant? Could be. Again, a comparison or scale would have helped.[1]

Context would have also strengthened the third source of evidence, which was anecdotes of three Bell workers who were laid off around the time described by the financial report. The frustration of these laid-off workers was authentic and well-captured. Again, they show that Bell tightened its belt. But as sad as their stories were, they simply did not show any “significant” trends, and to assume they did would exemplify the fallacy of Insufficient Sample (Damer, p. 142).

In short, then, the reporters convincingly juxtaposed the salaries received by Bell officials with reductions in the city’s spending on public services. But they did not provide enough counterevidence or context to show that the officials didn’t effectively respond to the city’s budgetary needs or that the city’s spending reductions had significantly affected the city.

It could be argued, though, that the above is not a fully accurate representation of the reporters’ argument. The reporters flirted with concluding that the Bell’s finances had been handled poorly (or perhaps unfairly) because Rizzo, Police Chief Randy Adams, and Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia, who had by then resigned, earned big salaries while the city cut budgets. There is reason to think the reporters tried to make this argument by their frequent references to their salaries, often in comparison to other city spending (2, 5, 8, 16), their describing officials as “defending” the salaries (4, 10), and their juxtaposing the salaries with tales of layoffs and cuts (2, 5).

It was true that were some of Rizzo’s, Adams’s, and Spaccia’s salaries garnished they could have made up for the cuts to services the reporters quote from the financial report. But there was distance between this and a larger argument about what the salaries meant about the handling of Bell’s finances. Numerous questions would need answering that the reporters did not — would Rizzo say that he would have done his job poorly with less money? Did Adams in fact “turn around a department riddled with problems” as the reporters say he was supposed to? (5)

Because the reporters did not discuss these questions, which would have gone to questioning the propriety of the salaries in direct relationship to the cuts and budget-balancing, it seemed unfair to try to critique these hints as an actual argument.

  1. There was another bit of trouble with accepting this evidence in that the reporters describe “the cuts” as having other “ill effects,” including poor training opportunities and unfilled positions. But the wording of the claims — that jobs were left “perennially unfilled” and that cars have “like 200,000 miles on them” — indicated that these were longtime problems. As such, it was not clear that they could support any conclusions about Bell’s finances in “recent years,” but rather about longtime problems with Bell’s management. But, overall, this complaint is not so weighty.  ↩

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