With the votes in the June city primary races mostly counted, and the combatants in the runoffs determined, the Los Angeles political set may be looking forward to an easy summer before things heat up again. That ain’t happening in Council District 10, and it has nothing to do with elections.
Last Wednesday, California Attorney General Rob Bonta dropped a bomb that looks likely to blow up both part of the ruling class in City Hall, and representation in the district that includes Koreatown, Crenshaw and Mid-City. It also marks the beginning of a new stage in the already fierce battle between Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas, and Council President Nury Martinez and the other panel members who last October suspended him in the wake of his indictment on federal bribery and conspiracy charges.
The situation may dissolve into an absolute mess. The goofy thing is that the legal ruling seemed predictable, and the current hubbub entirely preventable. One has to feel for District 10 constituents, who probably have no clue who to call when they need their council rep.
Everything stems from federal authorities arresting Ridley-Thomas in October. Prosecutors allege that, while in his previous position on the County Board of Supervisors, Ridley-Thomas used his influence to get his son admitted to a USC School of Social Work graduate program, with the university also providing a scholarship and a paid teaching gig. In return, the feds allege, Ridley-Thomas agreed to steer valuable county contracts to the school.
Ridley-Thomas, who has held elected office for more than three decades, has strongly denied all charges, but offered to step back from a public role while awaiting trial. The council instead wanted blood, and quickly voted 11-3 to suspend him. City Controller Ron Galperin then yanked Ridley-Thomas’ pay.
After the suspension, Karly Katona, Ridley-Thomas’ chief of staff, was installed as the district “caretaker.” While she represented a sense of consistency and stability, caretakers don’t get to vote at the council horseshoe. That prompted Martinez to work to put an old pal, former Council President Herb Wesson, in Ridley-Thomas’ seat, complete with voting rights. His appointment was until the end of 2022 (or sooner if Ridley-Thomas is acquitted or charges are dropped).
That pleased some district players, but raised the hackles of Ridley-Thomas supporters, including a battalion of South L.A. religious leaders. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and some district residents sued, partly on the grounds that Wesson had already served more than the maximum three council terms allowed. In February Superior Court Judge Mary H. Strobel halted the attempt to install Wesson, saying the suit would likely prevail.
The weirdness then got weirder. A couple weeks later Strobel put a temporary kibosh on her own move, saying the state attorney general would first need to weigh in on what is called a “quo warranto” ruling. This seemed like a sort of legal, “I think it’s cool, but go ask the other parent first to be sure,” step. Still, Martinez and her allies took it as an opportunity, and in March they voted in Wesson.
Bonta’s decision three months later looks like a smacktastic rebuke.
“We conclude that substantial questions of law exist as to whether Wesson’s appointment to the Los Angeles City Council was lawful,” Bonta writes at the top of the eight-page decision. “Further, the public interest will be served by allowing the proposed quo warranto action to proceed.”
That’s fuel to attorney John Sweeney and the team behind the lawsuit. After Bonta’s decision, he declared, “We look forward to a swift hearing back in Los Angeles Superior Court to address the great harm that is being done to CD 10 constituents by the City Council’s lack of a transparent selection process and clear violation of the City Charter.”
One thing largely overlooked is that this is an extremely rapid return for a quo warranto ruling. One very smart legal mind told me these decisions can easily take a year. This one coming in about 100 days probably speaks to what is at stake and who is involved.
The decision looks like a win for Ridley-Thomas’ camp, but it’s hard to discern any long-range payoff. The L.A. Times in March reported that one of Wesson’s first moves was firing Katona, so she seems to be out of the picture. Hence any new caretaker, or other voting replacement, would be the fourth person serving constituents since October.
Ridley-Thomas has not spoken publicly, but he is one of the sharpest operators on the political scene, with ties to community, business, labor and other leaders that date back decades. If local clergy members and others are taking steps to ensure he has a quick path back to the council seat should he be absolved, then it is probably not random.
But don’t expect Martinez to quit. Even if it turns out that installing Wesson was built on the equivalent of legal balsa wood, she can state that she gave District 10 an experienced representative and a vote, albeit temporarily.
“This was always about making sure the 10th District has a voice who knows the district and the community,” Martinez said in a prepared statement. “The people of the 10th deserve representation on this Council and I am still determined to give them that.”
The one thing everyone can agree on is the first part of the statement—that the district deserves representation. But precisely what form that takes, and when it happens, remains completely up in the air.