CHICAGO: When the news broke in 2010 about excessive salaries being paid to the manager and council members in the City of Bell, southeast of Los Angeles, the controversy provoked voters to look for new leaders.
One person who surfaced to lead a reform political movement in the City of Bell was Ali Saleh, a Muslim-American businessman whose parents immigrated to California from southern Lebanon in the 1970s.
Saleh — who appeared on The Ray Hanania Radio Show this week — founded BASTA, the Bell Association to Stop the Abuse, which ousted the city’s five members after it was disclosed they were each being paid $100,000 annually, with the manager earning more than $1 million.
“I was born and raised in the City of Bell. In 2010, we had a scandal unfortunately that happened here where the city manager was making over one million and council members were making close to $100,000,” Saleh told Arab News during the taping of the show Wednesday.
“In comparison, I currently take a salary which is $670 a month which comes out to be a bit over $8,000 a year. And those council members (took) close to $100,000 each. The scandal was broken by the LA Times. At that time, I was a regular community member, working and trying to raise a family here in the City of Bell. Obviously, property taxes were high and we got involved. We created a community group called BASTA (or) Bell Association to Stop the Abuse.
“And I was one of the founders of that organization and we were successful in recalling all of the council members and bringing in five new council members. In the City of Bell, like a lot of the small cities here in LA County, we appoint a mayor and vice mayor every year within the council and I had served as the first mayor right after all that had happened here in the City of Bell. I did not expect myself to be able to succeed but I was the top vote getter in a community that is 96 percent Latino.”
Saleh said the financial scandal fueled support for change among the public and voters that led to his election.
Although the City of Bell is 96 percent Hispanic, with a small pocket of Lebanese Americans, council members named him the city’s new mayor, the first Muslim-Arab to hold the position in the state. The mayor is appointed by the elected council and changes annually.
“I ran with being transparent and being able to show the community what we do,” Saleh said.
“We were able, because of the City of Bell, (ensure) everyone in the State of California has to show their salaries, and what they are making. So, you could basically go on the transparency website in the state and be able to see each government employee and what they are making.”
After the election Saleh said the decision by the new council members to cut their salaries saved taxpayers nearly $500,000 a year.
Saleh, a Democrat, said he was never interested in pursuing a career in politics and spent his time working in his family apparel business, which has several branches.
“I had never had any interest of going into politics. And because of the unfortunate circumstances that happened here in the City of Bell that is how I got into politics,” Saleh said.
“A lot of Lebanese here in LA County just want to put food on the table for the family and be able to raise a family here. And politics is secondary. But I am seeing a lot of new generations going into politics. When I first got elected in 2011, you didn’t see that much. I probably was the first Lebanese-Muslim mayor here in the state of California. I am hoping the young generations get more involved and take a career into politics and hopefully be able to serve their communities. There is a lot that we can give as Arab Americans to this great country.”
Saleh said Arab Americans need to build trust among other constituencies and help them understand that they are really like everyone else.
“I am fortunate to represent a community that is 96 percent Latino and they have entrusted themselves to have an Arab American to be on the city council here. This is my third term. I have been the top vote getter every single time and I am hoping to serve this community in any way possible whether it is on the council — or if I retire, I definitely will stay involved in our community,” said Saleh who is fluent in Spanish and Arabic.
Saleh said the mostly Lebanese-Arab community constitutes about 2 percent of the city’s population and that there is a mosque and a Muslim Youth Center, which was used as a meeting location for the BASTA political movement.
Saleh said that the goal of entering politics is to advocate for issues that bring services to the community and engender tolerance and acceptance of all peoples regardless of their heritage or national origins.
The BASTA movement and the City of Bell show that Arab Americans and Hispanics can work together toward the same goals, he said.
Saleh made his comments on The Ray Hanania Radio Show, broadcast Wednesday Aug. 30, 2023, on the US Arab Radio Network in Detroit on WNZK AM 690 radio and Washington D.C. on WDMV AM 700 radio.
You can listen to the radio show’s podcast by visiting ArabNews.com/rayradioshow.