CITY HALL — Taking a vacation typically means relaxing on a beach in a tropical locale or hitting the slopes at a ski resort, but for Santa Monica Deputy Police Chief Al Venegas it meant traveling to the beleaguered, scandal-ridden city of Bell where he spent two weeks running day-to-day operations as others worked to pull the city out of the depths of financial ruin.
Venegas, a former Marine and a 23-year veteran of the SMPD, was one of a handful of public servants who volunteered their time to try and make sense of what former Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo did during the 17 years he treated Bell’s coffers as his own personal piggy bank.
Rizzo, his former assistant and six former council members are facing felony charges of draining the city’s treasury by paying themselves exorbitant salaries and excessive retirement benefits and taking personal loans.
Venegas often worked 15-hour days, holding conferences with the mayor, attending City Council meetings, dealing with code compliance and parking enforcement issues, making minor expenditures to help keep City Hall functioning as interim City Manager Ken Hampian, who also did not receive a salary, tried to find a permanent replacement and clean up Rizzo’s mess.
Hampian found a city with no department heads or policies and a records room that consisted of haphazardly strewn boxes.
“I tried to do the best I could to help Ken,” said Venegas, who as deputy chief is in charge of operations for the SMPD. “It was a little bit of everything. There were some long days.”
That said, Venegas, who worked in Bell from Aug. 3 to Aug. 17, enjoyed his time there, even if he had to spend some of his vacation days in the process.
“What made it so beneficial to me was the reaffirmation of why we are in public service,” he said. “We’re there to help people and the city of Bell needs some help.”
Venegas was approached by Santa Monica City Manager Rod Gould during the department’s annual National Night Out event. Gould, a member of the International City/County Management Association, heard from colleagues that Bell was having a difficult time attracting candidates to take over the reigns. When Hampian asked for help, Gould wanted to do what he could to lend a hand.
“Most people react in horror at the thought of being anywhere near Bell given the radioactive nature [of what occurred there,] but Al didn’t hesitate,” Gould said. “In typical fashion, Al said ‘All right, I’ll go.’”
Gould said he wanted to provide assistance to Bell, but also provide Venegas with the rare opportunity to lead a city and gain valuable experience that he could bring back to Santa Monica.
And Venegas volunteered to use his vacation time so as not to cost the Santa Monica taxpayers a dime, he said.
“Bell is not a charity case by any means,” Venegas added. “Those left behind are committed to ensuring the city runs well. It was part of the healing process. The next step is to bring about good government and transparency. They needed help. That for me made it all worthwhile.”
Hampian praised Venegas’ work ethic.
“[He’s] a great guy with no ego,” Hampian said in an interview with the San Luis Obispo Tribune. (Hampian served as the city manager of San Luis Obispo). “He worked with little more than a card table as a desk, staying late, showing up early and taking his vacation to do so.”
Gould said Venegas’ actions are appreciated.
“He made us proud in Santa Monica.”