Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Judge’s order blocks Herb Wesson from serving on L.A. City Council

Must read

A Superior Court judge Thursday blocked the city of Los Angeles from allowing former Councilman Herb Wesson to return to City Hall, handing a victory to a civil rights group and allies of Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mary H. Strobel issued a temporary restraining order barring Wesson from participating as a council member until March 17, the next hearing on a lawsuit challenging his eligibility for the seat.

Wesson was sworn in Tuesday as a temporary replacement for Ridley-Thomas, who is fighting corruption charges and was suspended by his colleagues in October.

Strobel said the plaintiffs, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California, along with a group of voters in Ridley-Thomas’ district, have a sufficient likelihood of prevailing in their argument that Wesson is legally barred from returning on an interim basis, since he has already served three terms — the maximum under the city’s term limit law.

Thursday’s ruling dealt a setback to Council President Nury Martinez, who had spearheaded the effort in recent weeks to make Wesson a 10-month replacement for Ridley-Thomas. And it provided yet another twist in the legal saga surrounding the political representation of the 10th District, which stretches from Koreatown to the Crenshaw Corridor in South Los Angeles.

Ridley-Thomas, who was elected to represent the district in 2020, was indicted last year on federal bribery and corruption charges, in a case dealing with his tenure on the county Board of Supervisors. His colleagues on the council suspended him a week later, leaving the district with a nonvoting caretaker — spurring complaints that district voters had been disenfranchised.

Federal prosecutors have accused Ridley-Thomas in a 20-count indictment of conspiring with a USC dean to steer county contracts to the university. In return, prosecutors said, Ridley-Thomas’ son, Sebastian, was admitted to USC’s graduate school and given a full-tuition scholarship and a paid professorship.

Ridley-Thomas has pleaded not guilty. Trial in the case is set for August.

On Tuesday, the council voted to appoint Wesson as a temporary replacement for Ridley-Thomas, assigning him to serve until Dec. 31. Under that plan, Wesson would step down at an earlier date if the charges against Ridley-Thomas were dropped or if he prevailed in court.

Strobel said she did not understand why the council selected Dec. 31 as the termination date for its interim appointment. She also said she could not reconcile that action with the provision of the City Charter, the city’s governing document, that governs the process for filling a vacant council seat.

“I don’t see anything saying the City Council can appoint someone for a short period of time … and then appoint someone else,” she said. “I just don’t see that as the process that the charter contemplates.”

In their legal filing, the city’s lawyers said the council sought to ensure that the voices of district residents were heard, while also preserving Ridley-Thomas’ ability to return to his seat “at the earliest possible moment should future events warrant.”

Putting in a termed-out council member, they said, would prevent anyone else from gaining an unfair advantage in the next election to replace Ridley-Thomas.

Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for City Atty. Mike Feuer, said after the hearing that the city’s lawyers are conferring with the council on the judge’s order.

Supporters of Ridley-Thomas have argued for months that the council had treated him badly, suspending him from his duties even though he had declared his innocence. The council took a similar step in 2020 after former Councilman Jose Huizar was charged in a separate corruption case.

The issuance of the restraining order delivered “a great day for the justice and the people of the 10th District,” said John Sweeney, an attorney for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California.

“They will not be dictated to by the City Council as to who their representative will be,” he said.

During Thursday’s hearing, Sweeney told the judge that residents of the 10th District did not support Wesson two years ago, when he waged an unsuccessful campaign for county supervisor.

“Sixty percent of the voters within the 10th District voted against him,” Sweeney said. “That’s why they’re so aggrieved.”

Wesson did not immediately comment. Martinez, in a statement, said residents of the 10th District “want and deserve a voting voice, and they overwhelmingly wanted Herb Wesson.”

“I stand by giving the residents a vote and a voice on the City Council,” she said. “At this time, we are in discussions with the City Attorney and we will determine our legal options.”

Strobel did hand one victory to the city, denying a request to strike down the council’s suspension of Ridley-Thomas. The judge said that at this point, she believes that action complies with the provisions of the City Charter.

Michael J. Proctor, a lawyer for Ridley-Thomas, said his client has been concerned that Martinez and her colleagues had “consistently taken action without listening to the voters of District 10.”

“Today, thankfully, someone — the court system — finally listened to their concerns,” he said. “The lesson to District 10 voters? If you want to be counted, you need to fight for it.”

More articles

Latest article