I’m pretty sure that time machines don’t exist. But last week, part of the Los Angeles ruling class managed to zip a swath of the city back in time five months into a previous period of problematic uncertainty.
On Tuesday, Superior Court Judge Mary Strobel issued a ruling that effectively prevents City Councilman Herb Wesson from continuing to represent District 10. This sets the ongoing drama over who will represent the district back to the state of play in February, when the judge first delivered a temporary restraining order that briefly knocked Wesson from his post.
This adds yet another layer to one of the most gripping battles in Los Angeles City Hall—a political steel-cage match involving powerful figures including Council President Nury Martinez, Wesson, a group of South L.A. religious leaders the local branch of the U.S. Department of Justice after Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas was indicted on bribery charges in 2021. It’s unclear how this battle royale will end but this hands a clear, if perhaps temporary victory, to the supporters of the suspended councilmember.
Suffering the most, of course, from this hot mess of legal and territorial fisticuffs are the district’s quarter-million residents, which includes the communities of Crenshaw, Mid-City and Koreatown; they are now on their fourth political representative in less than a year. You can truly look no further than District 10 if you’d like to see how constituents can lose faith in local government.
Pastor Eddie Anderson of the McCarthy Memorial Christian Church hit the theme in a prepared statement after Strobel’s ruling, saying that the process by which Ridley-Thomas was replaced on the council “was not public and completely disregarded the overwhelming choice made by 10th District voters.”
“Our community deserves better, as does the entire City of Los Angeles,” he concluded.
This moment is not surprising; the world’s worst soothsayer should have been able to predict what would transpire, as Judge Strobel’s February ruling was a flashing light that Wesson’s tenure was in trouble. Now, the powers-that-be have doubled down.
Maybe the biggest miscalculation in the whole saga was that City Hall players were expecting that Ridley-Thomas, after being indicted by federal prosecutors on bribery and conspiracy charges, would slink away. If you have paid attention to him during his 30 years in elected office, then you know that he’s prone to punching back harder and with precision. “The guy doesn’t shy from a fight,” I wrote in October at the dawn of this saga.
The situation began when Ridley-Thomas, who then held a seat on the County Board of Supervisors, was charged with conspiring with the dean of the USC School of Social Work to have his son admitted to a graduate program and given a scholarship and a paid teaching job. In return, county contracts would be steered to the university, prosecutors say. Ridley-Thomas has pleaded not guilty and a trial is scheduled for November.
It’s what came next that set up the string of dominos. Ridley-Thomas offered to step away from attending council and committee meetings, but his proposal was rejected. Instead, a week after the indictment, the council, led by Martinez, voted 11-3 to suspend him and City Controller Ron Galperin halted payment of his salary.
Initially, Ridley-Thomas’ chief of staff was named caretaker of the district. While that helped constituent services continue to flow, caretakers don’t vote like the 14 elected council members. Martinez met with some district residents and hatched the plan to appoint Wesson, an ally and the former council president, to represent the district through the end of 2022—or sooner if Ridley-Thomas were to be acquitted or if the charges were dropped.
That’s where the legal chasm opened. While there was logic in the idea of installing an experienced voting member, Wesson had already served the maximum three terms allowed under the city charter. The local branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (which Ridley-Thomas helmed in the early 90s) and other district residents filed a lawsuit challenging Wesson’s eligibility, which led to Strobel’s February decision.
Things got a little kooky when weeks later, Strobel reversed the decision and declared that California Attorney General Rob Bonta first had to issue what is called a “quo warranto” ruling. Bonta delivered that ruling in late June, with his eight-page decision finding that “substantial questions of law exist as to whether Wesson’s appointment to the Los Angeles City Council was lawful.” The next domino.
Another hearing in Strobel’s courtroom is scheduled for August and lawyers for all sides will argue their cases. But Tuesday’s decision seems likely to force Wesson from the council horseshoe. The Los Angeles Times on Thursday reported that Galperin has now stopped paying Wesson’s salary and that Martinez has appointed Wesson’s chief of staff, Heather Hutt, as the district’s new non-voting caretaker.
Martinez is not pleased with the legal machinations.
“It’s wrong that a group of individuals with suspect agendas are working to keep over 250,000 residents from having representation on this council,” she said in a prepared statement. “The residents of the 10th District wanted Herb Wesson but the SCLC continues to fight for the seat to remain vacant until Councilmember Ridley-Thomas returns. Mr. Ridley-Thomas’ trial has been delayed for over a year. How is it fair to the residents of the 10th District to deprive them of representation this whole time? They don’t deserve this.”
The situation is tumultuous. In addition to the fractious politics, the experienced staff Ridley-Thomas hired after winning office in 2020 has been gutted—in fact, Wesson fired some of them. As anyone who has phoned a council office knows, a lack of continuity can make it nearly impossible to ensure that area residents get their potholes filled, old sofas picked up by sanitation staff, and all the other needs that require a politician’s carrot or stick are met. There is also the fact that Ridley-Thomas had deep experience in addressing the crisis of homelessness in Los Angeles and was pushing an important “Right to Housing” framework in City Hall.
Good luck guessing the next play in this political knife fight. Federal prosecutors are unlikely to go after such a prominent figure without believing they have a watertight case. But District 10 advocates have made it clear that they’re standing by Ridley-Thomas.