FEB. 25, 2022 1:51 PM PT
Just two days after Los Angeles City Council President Nury Martinez rushed through a vote to appoint former Councilman Herb Wesson to fill the seat of suspended Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, a judge blocked the move, saying Wesson may not be eligible to return to the council.
Wesson was appointed and sworn into office on Tuesday on the dubious assertion that residents of that district couldn’t wait another day for a voting representative on the council, though they have been without one for months. But the preliminary injunction from Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mary H. Strobel says Wesson can’t act as council member until at least March 17, the date of the next hearing on a lawsuit challenging his ability to serve again after he was termed out.
What a mess. This is not a good look for City Hall.
The City Council has been under a cloud of scandal since former Councilmembers Mitch Englander and Jose Huizar were indicted on charges related to a sprawling corruption investigation. Then newly installed Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas was indicted for bribery and other federal corruption charges related to his role as a county supervisor.
The City Council should be deliberate, thoughtful and transparent when making major governance decisions. Instead, the Wesson appointment had the appearance of a backroom deal, hurried to a vote despite legal and logistical questions — like whether the City Charter even allows Wesson to fill the seat — and a reasonable request for a one-week delay to hash out the details. The fact that a judge temporarily halted the appointment only makes the process look more shady.
The council voted to suspend Ridley-Thomas in October, shortly after he was indicted. He’s accused of conspiring with the then-dean of the USC’s School of Social Work to steer county contracts to the school in return for admitting his son Sebastian Ridley-Thomas into the graduate school with a full-tuition scholarship and a paid professorship. Ridley-Thomas has pleaded not guilty and the trial is set for August.
A nonvoting caretaker has been representing the 10th council district, which stretches from Koreatown to the Crenshaw Corridor in South Los Angeles. In January, Martinez began talking with residents about appointing a voting member to replace Ridley-Thomas and she said Wesson was the overwhelming recommendation. Last Wednesday, she proposed installing him to fill the seat through the end of 2022, unless charges are dropped against Ridley-Thomas or he prevails in court.
Wesson’s nomination was immediately controversial. Though he represented the 10th district for 15 years and knows the communities and understands the job, Wesson has his own cloud. He was council president from 2011 to 2019, a period during which federal prosecutors launched a corruption investigation into bribery and pay-to-play schemes with developers that centered on Huizar, whom Wesson put in charge of the council’s powerful Planning and Land-Use Committee and called his “best friend on the council.”
Meanwhile, Ridley-Thomas supporters insist he shouldn’t have been suspended because he hasn’t, and may not be, convicted of a crime and, furthermore, the charges stem from his time with the county, not the city. A civil rights group with ties to Ridley-Thomas has sued to block Wesson’s appointment and overturn the suspension. While the judge paused Wesson’s appointment, she denied the request to reinstate Ridley-Thomas.
Martinez defends the Wesson appointment, saying she consulted community groups and was clear about her intent to install a voting member quickly. She said attempts to delay the appointment were part of an effort by Ridley-Thomas and his supporters to get his suspension rescinded. Still, the way the process played out doesn’t reflect well on her leadership. She has to ensure major decisions get a proper public vetting.
There’s lots of political jockeying going on at City Hall about who should replace Mayor Eric Garcetti when he is confirmed as President Biden’s ambassador to India, which could happen any day. Martinez said she can serve as acting mayor and council president until the elected mayor takes office in December, rather than appoint someone else. Others want an interim mayor, so the legislative and executive branches remain separate. That makes sense — L.A. is massive city and bureaucracy that shouldn’t go eight months without a full-time executive.
The missteps on Wesson’s appointment raise big red flags about how Martinez and the City Council will handle that decision, and whether the public will have any meaningful input. Choosing L.A.’s mayor, even a temporary mayor, should not be a backroom deal.