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RICHMOND -- Gary Bell, a longtime local leader who was elected to the City Council in November, but fell ill days before the election, died in the hospital early Thursday, according to sources close to his family.

Bell was 54.

"(Bell's wife) Shelley texted me last night that Gary had passed," said Councilman Nat Bates, a longtime friend. "It's just a tremendous loss to his family and to this community that he served."

Bell slipped into a coma after two neurosurgeries in November. He was initially hospitalized with a "severe bacterial sinus infection" in the days before the Nov. 6 election. Bell's wife and two adult sons said in January that earlier news reports erroneously labeled Bell's sickness as meningitis.

Gary Bell, a longtime local leader who was elected to the Richmond City Council in November but fell ill days before the election, died in the hospital
Gary Bell, a longtime local leader who was elected to the Richmond City Council in November but fell ill days before the election, died in the hospital early Thursday. (Courtesy of Gary Bell)

On Election Day, Bell checked himself out of the hospital to address supporters in a victory party at a Marina Bay restaurant. Attendees said Bell looked visibly weakened, and he soon returned to the hospital.

Bell was rushed back to Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Richmond on the afternoon of Nov. 10. Doctors in Richmond transferred Bell to a Kaiser facility in Redwood City for emergency surgery to relieve swelling on his brain.

It is not clear whether Bell ever regained consciousness. Bates said he visited Bell's family in the hospital but never saw or spoke to Bell again.

"He wasn't in condition to accept visitors," Bates said.

Bates said Bell was being treated at John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek when he died around 1 a.m. Thursday.

Bell's family members have guarded their privacy throughout the ordeal. In January, they released a statement days before he was scheduled to be sworn into his elected office to announce that he would be unable to serve.

"As much as (Gary) and his supporters worked to win election to the council, we know Gary unselfishly wants what is best for the people of Richmond," Shelley Ross-Bell said in the news release. "On behalf of our entire family, we offer our regrets that my husband is now unable to serve as many had hoped. We thank each of you for your cards, support, love and prayers."

The council ultimately appointed Jael Myrick to fill Bell's seat, a move that irked some because Myrick has proved to be more progressive than Bell, who was a favorite of local business interests.

"We would have had a much more stable, balanced council with Gary on board," Bates said.

Councilman Corky Boozé said Bell was a "class act," and he is still coming to grips with how a healthy, vigorous man could be struck down so mysteriously.

"I visited Gary in Kaiser hospital right after he got sick," Boozé said. "He was coherent and really looking forward to returning to the council; we were ready to rock and roll, but he told me he was having really terrible headaches. I said to rest up and we'll see you soon, but that was the last we ever talked."

Bell was president and CEO of Cooperative Federal Credit Union in Berkeley. He was first elected to the Richmond City Council in 1999, serving one term. In 2006, he ran for mayor, losing in a tight three-way race with Gayle McLaughlin and incumbent Irma Anderson.

Bell's long-term hospitalization dampened initial hopes that he would make a speedy recovery. On the afternoon of Nov. 7, Bell responded to Facebook messages asking for a comment about his electoral win.

"I've been sick and in the hospital for the past few days," Bell wrote. "Call me early next week when I'm feeling better. Thanks."

Odes began popping up on Bell's Facebook page early Thursday.

"My heart is heavy this morning," wrote Richmond resident Michelle Itagaki. " ... would have given almost anything to hear his voice on the phone saying, 'So how are you doing, my friend.' Rest in Peace, my good friend!"

Plans for Bell's funeral services have not yet been announced.

Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726 or rrogers@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/roberthrogers.