LA Mag: L.A.’s Blistering Political Battle Over a Suspended Councilman Expands Into New Fronts

LA Mag: L.A.’s Blistering Political Battle Over a Suspended Councilman Expands Into New Fronts
Civil rights leader Rev. James Lawson, left, and other community leaders and pastors rally in support of suspended Mark Ridley-Thomas at the entrance of City Hall on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021 in Los Angeles, CA. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

By -August 17, 2022

For months, the Los Angeles political class and we who watch them closely have witnessed a blistering political and legal fight between suspended District 10 City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas and a clutch of our city leaders. Now, somehow, the situation may intensify as a City Hall crew that just lost one big battle faces the risk of taking another shellacking.

And this battle could prove expensive and have long tentacles that may stretch very far and new plot twists may soon come, as even some of those who voted to suspend Ridley-Thomas are now officially questioning why an accusation of corruption lobbed against the suspended councilman is already having an impact on his bank account while he awaits trial.

At issue is Ridley-Thomas’ pay and benefits from the city and specifically, whether City Controller Ron Galperin had the right to yank them away—which is precisely what the controller did in October, asserting that the City Charter gives the controller authority to shut off the financial spigot. But Ridley-Thomas’ legal team is arguing that this is a misreading of the charter. His camp filed a lawsuit asserting that, actually, the Los Angeles City Charter in no way grants the controller the power to unilaterally withhold an elected official’s pay and benefits.

Galperin and the City of Los Angeles, the lawsuit charges, “violated the City Charter by depriving [Ridley-Thomas] of his salary and benefits without any legal authority supporting that decision. Defendants’ illegal action was wrong then, it remains wrong now.”

Galperin has declined to comment on the suit filed on July 28.

The entire legal mess stems from Oct. 13, when federal authorities stunned the L.A. political scene by filing charges against and arresting Ridley-Thomas—who had spent 30 years in elected office at the city, county, and state levels—alleging that, while on the County Board of Supervisors, he conspired with the University of Southern California School of Social Work dean to grant his son admission to a graduate school program and provide him a scholarship and paid teaching gig. In return, the feds assert, Ridley-Thomas intended to direct lucrative county contracts to the school.

Ridley-Thomas has maintained his innocence and a trial is scheduled for November.

Although Ridley-Thomas offered to step back from a public role following his arrest, the council, under President Nury Martinez, decided to wave a big stick. On Oct. 20, the panel voted 11-3 to suspend the councilman. It was after this vote that Galperin made his move, stating in a press release, “In accordance with the City Charter, I am exercising my authority as L.A. City Controller to suspend Ridley-Thomas’s salary and benefits.”

Ridley-Thomas’s salary is $223,829.42 a year but the lawsuit points to a wrinkle many people initially missed: While suspended, he is legally barred from any outside employment. In short, he’s denied his city salary and can’t work another job, all while he has to pay an army of lawyers ahead of a major trial.

Please take a breath, because this is a story with many moving and overlapping parts.

Now, the suit filed by Ridley-Thomas’ legal team comes in the wake of a major victory for his supporters. Several months after his suspension, Council President Martinez helped facilitate the appointment of seasoned councilman Herb Wesson to now represent District 10. A group of local residents, along with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (which Ridley-Thomas helmed in the late 80s) then sued, arguing that since Wesson had served more than the maximum allowed three full terms on the council, he is ineligible for the post. Last month, after California Attorney General Rob Bonta delivered what is known as a quo warranto decision, Superior Court Judge Mary Strobel issued a ruling that effectively booted Wesson from the postoverseeing District 10. Strobel, it turns out, worked on a City Charter upgrade two decades ago so has since recused herself from the matter; another hearing under a new judge is scheduled for Wednesday.

This has led to a representational revolving door, with District 10 now under its fourth leader in less than a year—namely, former U.S. Senate State Director Heather Hutt, who officially is District 10’s “caretaker” and does not vote at the Council horseshoe.

Now, Ridley-Thomas’ supporters want him reinstated as councilman while he awaits trial, a prospect that doesn’t appear to be in the cards. Still, as I have pointed out, those who have lined up against Ridley-Thomas seem to have underestimated his political savvy and willingness to go to the mat. Perhaps there was the expectation that facing federal charges, he would merely slink away.

That has not happened. Now, his lawsuit is something of a counter-attack, charging that Galperin withheld Ridley-Thomas’ pay because doing so would benefit him in his run for state controller. Galperin launched that bid in January and in the June primaryfinished third in a six-person field.

It’s hard to know how all of the courtroom drama will play out, but already there are new elements emerging in City Hall’s winding saga. A Los Angeles Times editorial on July 27 opined that the city is too quick to withhold pay for suspended council members: “Why should elected officials who have been accused of crimes but not convicted lose their salary?” the editorial asked. “It tramples on due process and the presumption of innocence before conviction.”

About two weeks later, a quartet of council members decided to reenter the muck. On Aug. 9, Representatives Curren Price and Marqueece Harris-Dawson authored a motion asking City Attorney Mike Feuer to determine, within 10 days, whether the controller can withhold a suspended member’s salary, pointing out that this presents “an extreme financial burden for Mr. Ridley-Thomas.”

This followed an Aug. 3 motion from council members Paul Krekorian and Gil Cedillo—who, unlike Price and Harris-Dawson, voted in October in favor of their colleague’s suspension—that also questions the legality of Galperin’s move. Amusingly, it sought to distance the Council from Galperin, reading in part, “The Council never discussed or debated whether Ridley-Thomas’ salary and benefits should, or legally could, be suspended. That decision was made solely by the Controller.”

It might have been helpful for the Council to take up this matter in October but, you know, this is Los Angeles City Hall.

There is yet another layer here, as the Krekorian-Cedillo motion reflects concerns about what could happen after the November election. While not specifically referencing left-wing leading candidate Kenneth Mejia, it alludes to possibilities that could flow from a new city controller who has significant disagreements with many elected representatives.

“If a future controller, as an independently elected city official, has the ability to decide to suspend the pay of a council member whom the controller subjectively claims is not ‘devoting his time to duties related to his office,’ the potential for abuse is obvious,” the motion states. It asks Feuer’s office to report back on amendments to the City Charter “to correct such ambiguity.”

It’s easy to assume that much more will develop as this saga unfolds ahead of the federal trial. But right now, the big question is whether the city will backtrack and Ridley-Thomas will start to get paid.