BY DAVID ZAHNISER STAFF WRITER
FEB. 18, 2022 7:33 PM PT
A civil rights group asked a judge on Friday to strike down the Los Angeles City Council’s suspension of Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas and halt the plan for replacing him with former Councilman Herb Wesson.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California filed a 31-page lawsuit saying the city’s term-limit law bars Wesson from filling the seat, since he has already served three full terms — the maximum allowed under the City Charter.
The SCLC of Southern California, which was joined in its lawsuit by several district residents, contends the council violated the City Charter by suspending Ridley-Thomas last fall, one week after he was indicted on federal bribery and corruption charges in a case involving county contracts.
Ridley-Thomas has pleaded not guilty to the charges. Since November, the district has had a non-voting caretaker, which has sparked complaints that residents have been disenfranchised.
In its lawsuit, the SCLC of Southern California said the council cannot suspend one of its members based on “unproven criminal charges unrelated to any official city council duties.”
“The decision to suspend [Ridley-Thomas] contravenes the bedrock presumption of innocence guaranteed under California law,” the lawsuit states. “It conflicts with the plain language of the California Constitution and City Charter. And it deprives more than 230,000 residents of District 10 — a district with one of the highest percentages of African Americans in Los Angeles — of their chosen representative.”
The lawsuit seeks to have Ridley-Thomas resume his duties, with his salary and benefits restored, said John E. Sweeney, an attorney for the plaintiffs.
Council President Nury Martinez unveiled the proposal for making Wesson an interim replacement on Wednesday, saying he “knows the district better than anyone.” Wesson represented the 10th District, which stretches from Koreatown to the Crenshaw Corridor in South L.A., from 2005 to 2020.
Martinez spokeswoman Sophie Gilchrist said Friday that her boss would not comment on pending litigation. But earlier this week, the council president said the City Charter allows the council to suspend any city elected official who has been charged with a criminal felony “related to a violation of official duties.”
In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs sought to rebut that notion, saying the allegations against Ridley-Thomas stem from his tenure on the county’s Board of Supervisors — not his duties at City Hall — and therefore cannot be used as a rationale for suspension from the council.
“The charges were based entirely on conduct alleged to have occurred several years prior to [Ridley-Thomas’] election to the City Council,” the lawsuit states.
Rob Wilcox, spokesman for City Atty. Mike Feuer, said his office intends to review the complaint and has no further comment.
Ridley-Thomas was the executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Greater Los Angeles chapter from 1981 to 1991, according to his website. His lawyer, Michael J. Proctor, said in an email that Ridley-Thomas is willing to continue serving as the representative for the 10th District.
“Mark Ridley-Thomas has been a lifelong advocate for civil rights,” Proctor said. “He believes that the right to accountable and elected representation is paramount to our democracy. It seems that that is what the SCLC’s lawsuit is about.”
Trial in the Ridley-Thomas case is set for August. Under the council’s proposal, Wesson would serve in a temporary voting capacity until Dec. 31 — or sooner, if Ridley-Thomas prevails in court or the charges are dropped.
Wesson, who has been contacting council members about the appointment in recent days, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. He served on the council for 15 years, representing the district until Ridley-Thomas took over 2020.
Ridley-Thomas’ term expires December 2024.
The council would need eight votes to appoint Wesson as a temporary replacement. Four council members, including Martinez, signed the proposal to appoint Wesson last week. Several others have declined to say how they would vote.
Councilman Mike Bonin, who voted against the suspension last year, described Wesson as a “friend and a respected former colleague.” But he argued that the council should revisit its suspension of Ridley-Thomas, which he called “an injustice.”
“This is not about [Wesson]. It is about the way this matter has been handled from the start,” Bonin said in a statement.