PUBLISHED: June 22, 2022 at 5:48 p.m. | UPDATED: June 22, 2022 at 5:48 p.m.
The state attorney general has given plaintiffs including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California the go-ahead to challenge the Los Angeles City Council’s decision last October to appoint former city council member Herb Wesson to a seat vacated by Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas. Ridley-Thomas was suspended by his colleagues after being indicted on federal corruption charges.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys contend that Wesson is ineligible to be a temporary replacement for Ridley-Thomas in the 10th City Council District because the appointment violates city charter rules for term limits and appointments to vacant seats. They had also challenged the suspension of Ridley-Thomas by the city council, and sought his reinstatement.
Ridley-Thomas faces charges he took bribes in return for directing significant L.A. County funds to the university. He is also charged with conspiracy, mail fraud and wire fraud. His trial is scheduled to begin Aug. 9, 2022.
In February, a judge granted the plaintiffs a temporary restraining order preventing Wesson from serving as a voting representative of the 10th District, which includes West Adams, Koreatown, Mid-City and other neighborhoods. At the time, Wesson had only just been sworn in by the City Clerk.
But Wesson was cleared to assume office as the temporary voting representative of the 10th District, after the judge declined to extend the restraining order, finding that plaintiffs needed to first seek a ruling from Attorney General Rob Bonta before pursuing the legal action known as quo warranto, which is used when deciding if someone has the legal right to hold a specific public office.
The plaintiffs later filed a request to Attorney General Bonta, who responded Wednesday, June 22, granting the group permission to pursue quo warranto legal action “to remove Wesson from his public office on the Los Angeles City Council, representing Council District 10.”
Bonta’s filing on Wednesday states that “in deciding whether to grant consent, we do not resolve the merits of the controversy.”
John Sweeney, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, called Bonta’s decision “welcome news.”
“We look forward to a swift hearing back in Los Angeles Superior Court to address the great harm that is being done to CD 10 (Council District 10) constituents by the City Council’s lack of a transparent selection process and clear violation of the city charter through the ‘temporary’ appointing of Herb Wesson, who is ineligible to serve on the city council.”
Wesson is seen as an ally of City Council President Nury Martinez, who led a successful effort last October to suspend Ridley-Thomas. The City Council voted 11 to 3 to suspend him. She introduced a motion in February to appoint Wesson temporarily to fill the vacancy, which was approved a week later by the city council.
In his role as a temporary fill-in for the 10th district vacancy, Wesson has the ability to vote on matters before the city, which can give Martinez an advantage on initiatives she champions, as well as sustain her leadership position on council. Residents of the 10th council district have stated support for Wesson, pointing to his experience and long history representing the district, and concerns that there are few other options.
The council has an option to hold a special election to elect someone to fill the vacancy.
Martinez did not respond to a request for comment on Bonta’s decision. Wesson issued a statement saying that he “will continue to work in the best interest of the people until this situation is resolved.”
“Prior to my appointment to the council,” Wesson said, “life was great for my family and myself. I was truly enjoying being a husband, a dad and a granddad — retirement was pretty good. But when there was a need for someone to temporarily step in and keep the district running, there was no way I could say no to my neighbors and friends that I love so much. I could not let over 250,000 people go unrepresented.”
Ridley-Thomas took the seat in December 2020, after winning a runoff election for the seat that November. His removal less than a year after assuming office, with more than three years left in his term, prompted concern among constituents. Some opposed the suspension, and some called for his seat to be filled sooner rather than later.
According to Council President Martinez’s motion to appoint Wesson, he was to serve as Ridley-Thomas’s temporary replacement until December 31 of this year, or until the federal charges against Ridley-Thomas are dropped or he is acquitted.
Ridley-Thomas, who had volunteered to step back from his council duties, opposed the suspension. He has said he expects to be exonerated.
The federal corruption charges faced by Ridley-Thomas stem from his time on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, not from his short time on city council. Last October, he was named along with a former USC dean in a 20-count indictment that accused Ridley-Thomas of taking bribes in return for directing significant L.A. County funds to the university.
The plaintiffs who are challenging his removal from the Los Angeles City Council are made up of Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California, which Ridley-Thomas led throughout the 1980s, and several individuals from the council district.
Prior to being appointed to his current role, Wesson had already “termed out” of office by serving three full stints in office, from 2007 until 2020, in District 10.
Wesson actually began representing the district in 2005, when he won a special election to fill a seat left empty by Martin Ludlow, who stepped down to lead the Los Angeles Federation of Labor, from which he resigned a few months later amid a criminal investigation into the use of union funds on his 2003 city council election campaign. Ludlow pled guilty to violating the city’s campaign contribution limit, in exchange for cooperating with prosecutors.
Wesson served as council president from 2012 until 2019, and ended his third term in December 2020. Martinez succeeded him as president of the council and has served in that role since.