The L.A. City Council Is a House Divided After Voting on Heather Hutt

Cityside Column: A rift appears as panel President Nury Martinez tries to fill Mark Ridley-Thomas’ seat
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HBO’s House of the Dragon may be the battle show of the summer but as we’ve seen over the past weeks, it’s got nothing on the Los Angeles City Hall production that might as well be titled Game of the District 10 Throne. Every week, it seems there is a new development and high-stakes fighting, albeit of the talky variety with loads of legalese. However, the best episode yet took place Tuesday morning in Council chambers.

By the end of the proceedings the Los Angeles City Council looked fractured, and panel President Nury Martinez was struck with a blow after being unable to get the troops to vote how she wanted. Meanwhile, District 10’s caretaker, Heather Hutt, whom Martinez is trying to maneuver into a Council post, was left twisting in the wind. Expect the next episode to be even more bitter and entertaining.

This is not to be trite or underplay the real-world consequences for D10. As Martinez seeks to install a temporary representative in the seat of suspended Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, a sizable swath of the city is impacted. District 10 holds 260,000 residents, with neighborhoods including Koreatown, Mid-City and West Adams. Yet the downs, ups, and further downs of the past 10 months mean those Angelenos don’t have someone voting on their behalf around the Council horseshoe. Further, residents of D10 lack a leader who can wrestle with the other reps for precious funds and resources, act as the point person for those aiming to do business in the district, or go to department general managers and make requests with the bully authority of a councilmember. The void is very real and will be felt, if it already is not, by hundreds of thousands of residents.

“It should not be the constituents of District 10 who are forced to suffer,” Danny Bakewell, Jr. testified Tuesday during the public comment portion of the council hearing. “We need to get this resolved as soon as possible.”

About that: Tuesday’s move was an effort to speedily install Hutt—who lacks council voting power—in the Council seat, though with this, the speed seems to have undermined the play. It was only on Friday that Martinez nominated Hutt for the gig, and though she had four co-signers on her motion, another council faction suggested Martinez slow her roll; they authored a different motion, proposing the city spend two months considering options. Martinez liked her pace just fine and sought to orchestrate a full vote just 72 hours later.

This is where things got messy. But if you step back, they also got bizarre. When the matter came up, it was met by a proposal to delay the topic. What followed was not an up-and-down vote on Hutt, but literally a 35-minute discussion about whether they would discuss the matter.

Martinez made her position clear at the outset. “I urge you to vote yes on consideration, and vote yes on the merits of the woman here before us to represent District 10,” she stated.

While the public can get lost in Council minutiae, in this case, even members of the panel sat perplexed. That includes District 3 Rep. Bob Blumenfield, who spoke right after Martinez.

“It’s all happened very quickly for me. I just found out about the appointment on late Thursday when Ms. Hutt contacted me,” said a befuddled Blumenfield. “I thought we would have a hearing because it was a motion, and then yesterday found out it was on the agenda for today. So I haven’t had a chance to really vet or understand the implications of what this really means.”

This is Blumenfield, a council member. The ultimate city insider. Confused about what is happening. Good gravy.

District 10 Caretaker Heather Hutt (Photo by Heather Hutt CA)

Tuesday also presented all sorts of interesting nuggets: Marqueece Harris-Dawson called for a delay due to “the rushed way it’s been brought to us”; Gil Cedillo labored on about having a vote as the essence of democracy; and Mike Bonin remarked that slamming through a favored candidate is the way they did things in the Soviet Union.

Kevin de León provided a window into the sausage-making by speculating that Martinez instructed Hutt to lobby all the council members to vote for her appointment. Monica Rodriguez worried that the speedy process is a repeat of “what landed us in trouble last time.”

That reference is vital. Everything stems from October, when federal authorities indicted District 10’s Ridley-Thomas on bribery and conspiracy charges, alleging that he concocted a scheme with the dean of the USC School of Social Work to provide Ridley-Thomas’ son with graduate school admission, a scholarship and a teaching job. In return, authorities allege, Ridley-Thomas, then a member of the County Board of Supervisors, had pledged to direct lucrative county contracts to the school.

Ridley-Thomas has maintained his innocence—a trial is scheduled for November—and offered to step away from playing a public role. Martinez wanted more, and a week after the indictment, the council voted 11-3 in favor of his suspension. Although his chief of staff was initially made the caretaker, in February, Martinez orchestrated the installation of Herb Wesson as a temporary replacement, arguing that district residents deserved an experienced representative. 

This lightning-fast drama led supporters of Ridley-Thomas to raise legal objections. And two judges recently indicated that Wesson was ineligible for the role because he had served three full council terms. Victory, Ridley-Thomas.

But last week, Wesson formally resigned from a job he wasn’t doing anyway. The focus turned to Hutt—whom Wesson had hired as chief of staff after he fired Ridley-Thomas’ crew—and the attempt to elevate her ensued. Counter, Martinez.

In council, the back-and-forth continued. Nearly every speaker went out of their way to praise Hutt, and Blumenfield and Cedillo each got a second chance to speak. Martinez closed by again imploring the panel. “[Hutt] deserves to be heard today,” she stated. “The people who are here deserve to be heard today. So I urge you to vote yes on consideration.”

The vote was 9–5 in favor, and while that’s a majority, 10 votes total were needed; Harris-Dawson, Blumenfield, Bonin, Rodriguez and Nithya Raman all voted nay. The discussion was tabled—at least for the day.

If there were winners in this round, they were Ridley-Thomas and his supporters; their angle seems to be to keep the District 10 seat vacant as long as possible in hopes that it will provide a smooth return if charges are dropped or he is found not guilty at trial. As I have written before, the City Hall infrastructure appears to have anticipated he would slink away after the indictment, but the savvy political veteran has shown he’ll keep fighting, even if by proxy through community ties he has built up over the course of decades. It’s clear that it would be foolish to continue to underestimate him as this saga moves into its next season. 

Martinez however, is a power player; you don’t get 14 elected officials to make you their leader three years in a row without serious political skills. That said, when you publicly advocate for a discussion and it’s swiftly shot down, that’s a clear loss. It would have been a better look had the matter never reached a public vote.

Martinez may ultimately get her way. On Wednesday afternoon, the council’s Rules Committee, which she chairs, took up the Hutt matter, and it could return to the Council floor as soon as Friday. The nine votes for the discussion could lead to Hutt getting the gig.

But that will be another day and another episode in Game of District 10 Thrones.

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