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Former City of Bell, Calif. official Victor Bello walks out of Los Angeles Superior court after being convicted for misappropriating public funds in Los Angeles Wednesday, March 20, 2013. Bello along four former elected officials of the tiny California city of Bell were convicted Wednesday of multiple counts of misappropriation of public funds, and a sixth defendant was cleared entirely. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

After deliberating for more than a month, a jury last week finally convicted the former mayor of Bell and five other defendants on a variety of corruption charges.

You remember Bell. Or at least you should. It's the little Los Angeles County city where a cabal lead by the former city manager allegedly stole more than $5.5 million. It's where nobody followed the money as it flowed straight into people's pockets as steadily as water in a diversion canal.

The trial's had some laughs. Mayor Oscar Hernandez's lawyer said his client -- who didn't even finish elementary school -- is illiterate and so uneducated and naive that he never thought to question why his part-time public job paid him more than $90,000 a year.

But let's face it, this is serious business, all this thievery. It was hard work to steal so much public money. Agendas for meeting that didn't take place had to printed so the officials could claim they'd worked. The former city manager, Robert Rizzo, who'll be tried separately, had to go buy a ranch, he had so much cash.

The lesson of Bell is about what happens when no one watches. Yes, they got caught, thanks to the Los Angeles Times, but the city was already ruined.

The problem is, California's ways of looking are broken. Our government transparency law, the public records act, is antiquated.

The state controller tries to collect local government compensation data, but sometimes doesn't post it online for more than a year and then does so only in a woeful format that doesn't even include payee's names.

The public records act's problems are immense. They all reduce to this: Its only enforcement mechanism is to sue in Superior Court. Government officials, of course, are well aware of this.

The dirty reality is that no bureaucrat has to give you anything they don't want to unless a judge makes them.

Please don't get me wrong. Most of them do their jobs well with ever diminishing resources.

But sometimes the only way to get records -- even transparent compensation records as the Bell scandal plays out -- is to be a royal pain. Believe me, I know. I've filed more than 700 requests for compensation data since Jan. 2.

And most governments release transparent data, copying their existing records in a way this newspaper can display them as a public service. A few don't, which is where the pain part comes in.

A few years ago officials in Clayton grew so annoyed at my persistence in pursing records they got their handmaidens at a little local paper to publish a cartoon portraying me as bully.

But guess what? Clayton, to its credit, eventually changed positions and now releases transparent records.

But there are always problems. This year they include San Ramon, Woodside, American Canyon and Cotati. San Ramon, which already carries a reputation as the region's most recalcitrant local government, is particularly vexing.

Maybe it's just a coincidence that when the Bell scandal broke in 2010 that San Ramon had the second highest paid city manager in the state after Rizzo, the alleged Bell mastermind. Herb Moniz grossed $357,000 that year for running a government of less than 600 workers, including 156 with the title of lifeguard.

City attorney Robert Saxe, has been so resistant about releasing electronic compensation records for 2012 that his efforts seem to be little more than dilatory obfuscation.

The law's clear: government shall make records like payroll data "available in any electronic format in which it holds the information."

But to Saxe, that means printing the electronic records on paper, taking a black marker to things. Late last week Saxe began to bend saying some records would be released soon. We'll see.

Maybe places like San Ramon don't have anything to hide when it comes to compensation dollars. But even Oscar Hernandez could understand that they sure are good at making it seem like they do.

Thomas Peele is an investigative reporter for this newspaper and teaches a class on public records at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Reach him at tpeele@bayareanewsgroup.com; follow him at twitter.com/thomas_peele.