BY DAVID ZAHNISER STAFF WRITER FEB. 15, 2022 UPDATED 7:50 PM PT
Former Los Angeles Councilman Herb Wesson stepped away from public life in 2020, forced out of office by term limits and soundly defeated in his bid for county supervisor.
But with Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, the man who succeeded him, still suspended and continuing to fight corruption charges, Wesson could soon be poised for a comeback.
In recent days, several community groups have pressed the council to make Wesson, who wielded enormous power during his eight years as council president, a temporary voting member representing Ridley-Thomas’ 10th Council District, which stretches from Koreatown to the Crenshaw Corridor in South L.A.
The council voted to suspend Ridley-Thomas in October, a week after he was indicted on bribery and other charges in a case involving county contracts. His district has had a nonvoting caretaker since November, leading many residents to say they have been disenfranchised.
Council President Nury Martinez declined to say whether she is considering Wesson. But she has promised to appoint a voting representative for the 10th District while Ridley-Thomas receives “the space to be cleared of the charges.”
“Through no fault of their own, it’s been four months since CD10 residents have had voting representation in the council chambers,” Martinez said in a statement. “We have to do what’s right for them. They need a voice — their voice — around this horseshoe. And until the legal matters are resolved concerning Mr. Ridley-Thomas, that’s what I intend to give them.”
Ridley-Thomas had no comment. Wesson, reached by phone, declined to say whether he is interested in serving on an interim basis.
“I don’t have anything to say at this time,” he said.
Gina Fields, president of the McClung Bronson Block Club in Leimert Park, signed on to a letter supporting Wesson as a voting representative — and said she has heard from dozens of neighborhood leaders who feel the same way.
Fields said Martinez met with neighborhood leaders Tuesday evening to discuss the appointment process — and told them she is hearing support for Wesson from across the district. During the Zoom meeting, Martinez said she planned to confer with Wesson and the city’s lawyers to lay out the next steps, according to Fields, who participated in the call.
“She said if she can do that tonight, she might make a motion as quickly as tomorrow” recommending Wesson for the post, Fields said.
Whether Wesson would be legally permitted to take on such a position is unclear. When he stepped down in 2020, he had already served three full terms, the maximum permitted under the City Charter.
The city’s term limit law allows council members to serve additional years if they are completing a portion of another council member’s term. Wesson has done that once, finishing the term of former Councilman Martin Ludlow, who was convicted in 2006 in a campaign finance corruption case.
Rob Wilcox, spokesman for City Atty. Mike Feuer, declined to say whether the City Charter would allow Wesson to return on an interim basis. He said the legal advice being provided to Martinez on Council District 10 is “confidential.”
Under the City Charter, the council has the power to select someone to fill a vacant council seat. However, supporters of Ridley-Thomas, who has nearly three years left in his term, contend the seat is not vacant, since he has proclaimed his innocence and intends to fight the charges.
Trial is set for August. Karly Katona, the caretaker for the district, said she remains committed to serving in her role until after the case has been resolved.
Pastor William D. Smart Jr., president and chief executive of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California, said council members should rescind the suspension of Ridley-Thomas — not replace him.
“I don’t care what people are calling in to say, or who they want to support,” said Smart, who also lives in the district. “That seat is not vacant.”
Several others have also criticized Martinez over her handling of the search, saying the process has been secretive and politically driven.
Last week, Martinez met with a coalition of South L.A. pastors who have rallied around Ridley-Thomas. Xavier Thompson, lead pastor of the Southern Missionary Baptist Church, said coalition members told Martinez that they want the suspension of Ridley-Thomas to be repealed.
The group’s members came away from that meeting feeling “disrespected,” said Thompson, who is leading the coalition.
“We will not be ignored, or have someone shoved down our throats,” he said.
Thompson said he fears that Martinez is looking to appoint a political ally who will later vote to make her interim mayor once Mayor Eric Garcetti is confirmed as U.S. ambassador to India.
Martinez, in turn, said she was straightforward in her conversations with the pastors’ group — and disagreed with assertions that she had not been respectful.
“To be clear, Pastor Thompson said that he felt that my ‘tone’ was rude and disrespectful,” she said. “I heard his concerns, explained the council and my perspective on the suspension, and when he didn’t like the answers I gave, it became about my tone. I am a strong woman and known to be direct.”
Under the City Charter, if the mayor’s office becomes vacant, the council president becomes acting mayor, pending the appointment of a successor. The council may fill a vacancy in the mayor’s office by voting to appoint a replacement to serve out the remainder of the unexpired term.
California Rising, a group that worked with Wesson when he was council president, also has weighed in on the appointment process, urging city leaders to tap him. Raul Claros, a Wesson ally and the group’s co-founder, noted that Wesson has been out of office for only a year.
“He’s qualified, he’s ready, he’s not too far removed,” Claros said. “And he lives in the district.”