A Los Angeles civil rights group and others filed a writ in court on Friday, Feb. 18, that aims to halt an effort by Council President Nury Martinez to appoint Herb Wesson to serve in the 10th district seat, which became vacant after colleagues voted last October to suspend Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas.
The group, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California, has close ties to Ridley-Thomas, who led the organization during the 1980s.
Ridley-Thomas was suspended following his indictment in a federal corruption case unrelated to his time on the City Council, stemming from his tenure on the county Board of Supervisors. Ridley-Thomas himself has opposed the suspension, challenging the legality of the move.
In October 2021, a federal grand jury indicted Ridley-Thomas, along with a former USC dean, Marilyn Louise Flynn. The allegation: Ridley-Thomas relative received substantial benefits from the university in exchange for the politician’s support of multimillion-dollar contracts favorable to USC while he served as the second district’s county supervisor.
Both have vowed to fight the allegations and clear their names. A trial date has been scheduled for August.
Pastor William Smart, SCLC’s president, told City News Service Friday afternoon that his position is that Ridley-Thomas’ suspension was “morally wrong, politically indefensible and patently illegal.”
“We will not accept an unelected being imposed on us as a community …we operate, as SCLC, in the 10th District and I live in the 10th District. We believe that the councilman was ousted out and we want him to get his position back.”
The council is scheduled to consider a motion on Tuesday that calls for Wesson to fill that vacancy. Council President Nury Martinez spearheaded the effort, and was joined on the motion by three colleagues — Mitch O’Farrell, Gil Cedillo and Paul Koretz.
Wesson represented the 10th District from 2005 to December 2020. He also served as the president of the council before Martinez, from 2012 to 2020.
This effort to have Wesson fill the 10th district vacancy was supported by multiple groups that submitted public comment in support.
Meanwhile, the lawsuit filed Friday, by supporters of Ridley-Thomas, represents the first major potential obstacle to the effort to appoint Wesson, who led the council as its president for many years, and was an ally and mentor to Martinez.
The lawsuit argues that in suspending Ridley-Thomas, the council violated the city charter, and deprived 10th district voters of their chosen representative.
In the short-term, it aims to discourage the council from filling the vacancy. The effort contends that the charter prevents Wesson from being eligible for the appointment because he is termed out.
“We put them on notice that they better not make the vote on Tuesday,” said John Sweeney, the attorney representing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California and the organization’s president, Pastor William Smart. The other petitions are Joy Atkinson, Mary Lee, Kwame Cooper and Harry McElroy.
Sweeney said he expects a hearing will be scheduled as soon as next Wednesday to seek a temporary restraining order to prevent Wesson from being appointed.
While that means the hearing wouldn’t occur until a day after the scheduled consideration of the motion in City Council, he said he believes the council should consider the consequences in the event the restraining order is granted.
A spokeswoman for Martinez declined comment, as did representatives for the City Attorney’s office. The motion remains on the Tuesday’s City Council agenda, Martinez’s spokeswoman Sophie Gilchrist said Friday.
The writ states that if Ridley-Thomas is acquitted, “the charter could be read to grant his replacement the authority to serve the remainder of his term, depriving voters in District 10 of their right to be represented by the person they elected.”
Earlier this week, the proposed appointment received initial pushback, with some council members asking for more review of the city charter to determine if the council president’s effort to appoint Wesson aligned with the rules.
On Friday, Martinez’s effort to appoint Wesson spurred even stronger criticism from some of her colleagues on the council.
Shortly after the scheduling of the issue on Tuesday’s City Council agenda, Councilman Mike Bonin said in a statement Friday that he wanted to see more options presented for filling the vacancy.
“Residents of (the 10th council district) deserve full representation on the City Council, and we should thoroughly, transparently and expeditiously explore all options to make sure they have it,” he said. “But on Tuesday’s agenda, we have only one option. That’s wrong.”
Bonin called for a report from the City Attorney that maps out the eligibility requirement as laid out in the city charter for “potential appointments to fill the temporary vacancy.”
“We need a public report on what steps would need to be taken, what the associated costs would be, and what the legality would be of a special election allowing voters of the 10th District to fill the temporary vacancy,” he added.
Bonin said the council needed to take another look at the “decision to disenfranchise 10th district residents and consider whether those residents should be represented by the person they duly elected.”
“Mr. Wesson is a friend and a respected former colleague who has and would serve the district well,” he said. “This is not about him. It is about the way this matter has been handled from the start.”
“Last October, the council, without input or deliberation, robbed 260,000 residents of the 10th District of representation,” he said. “They deserve a better process, in the sunshine, with all options considered, for the Council to decide how best to reverse that injustice.”
Bonin was among those, including council members Curren Price and Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who earlier on raised concerns about the move to suspend Ridley-Thomas.
City News Service contributed to this report