The Process to Install Heather Hutt on L.A. City Council Stinks

Cityside Column: Nury Martinez’s pick is voted in and suspended Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas’s backers have recoiled. They are unlikely to back down
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On Tuesday morning, City Council President Nury Martinez was completely rocked by an unexpected turn of events when she was unable to garner 10 Los Angeles City Council members to agree to her proposal effort even to discuss having an official conversation about whether District 10’s temporary caretaker, Heather Hutt, would be named the temporary representative of District 10—giving her full voting power. Now, this wasn’t quite Mutiny on Spring Street, but having five Council members publicly refute their leader is certainly a political embarrassment.

So Martinez pivoted. The matter on Wednesday afternoon went to and soon cleared the Council’s Rules Committee, which Martinez happens to chair. Then on Friday morning, not only did the politicians discuss Hutt, they voted 12-2 to make her a voting member and officially replace indicted and suspended Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas—temporarily, of course, as his status hinges on the outcome of his upcoming trial. 

This was a win for Martinez but it begs questions: Did she turn lemons into lemonade? Did she really just make a sour concoction that will cause a populace already distrustful of City Hall to grimace over the calculated political gamesmanship?

This is impossible to tell right now and I have no idea how this will look a year from now. Neither does anyone else.

What is clear is that even if the roughly 260,000 residents of District 10 now have empowered leadership at City Hall, which they’ve lacked for months, the way it happened stinks. These are not mutually exclusive; A seat at the table matters but so does the political process.

About that seat: District 10 has been hamstrung since October when federal authorities indicted Ridley-Thomas on conspiracy and bribery charges; a week later, the council voted 11-3 to suspend him. Ridley-Thomas’s chief of staff became the so-called “caretaker” of the district, which provides some authority but no vote to represent District 10’s people at the council horseshoe. In February, Martinez launched a lightning-fast effort to temporarily install her ally, Herb Wesson, in the seat, but Ridley-Thomas supporters sued and two judges ruled that veteran politician Wesson, who had already served more than the maximum three council terms allowed, is not eligible to hold the seat. Hutt, hired by Wesson, became the district’s nonvoting caretaker. On Aug. 26 Martinez sparked lightning round two, aiming to install Hutt into the post with a vote just four days later.

Ridley-Thomas backers, who hoped to see him reclaim his seat, recoiled at this maneuver. Others raised eyebrows over what they perceived as blatantly unfair practice in government. The Los Angeles Times Tuesday morning published an editorial titled “Hold on, City Council. No more rushed appointments.”

The chambers of City Council Friday morning were filled with supporters who both argued for Hutt specifically and for the need to provide the district—which includes Mid-City, Koreatown, Little Bangladesh, and other communities, with full representation.

“Council District 10 has suffered long enough,” said Donna Jones during the public comment portion of the hearing. Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles and a professor at Cal State-Los Angeles, chimed in as a district resident. “I know some people have made this about political camps. This is not about political camps. This is about representation—especially for Black residents of Los Angeles.”

Mirroring how Tuesday’s events unfolded, Friday’s Council meeting was jammed with bloviating from elected officials who seem to believe that they are required to speak up every time the opportunity arises, even if they have little to add to the conversation. A few offered thoughtful points but it also seemed that everyone wanted to tell Hutt how excited they are to work with her and praise her qualifications. About that: Hutt’s resume includes time working in Vice President Kamala Harris’s office when the VP was in the Senate. 

Hutt may be eminently qualified. But no one bothered to remark that if someone must be shoehorned into a seat like this, then maybe the figure could have ties to the individual who was elected to the post back in 2020.

It is understandable that the pols want to distance themselves from Ridley-Thomas as he prepares for a November trial built on allegations that, while on the County Board of Supervisors, he promised to direct lucrative contracts to the USC School of Social Work in exchange for providing his son graduate school admission, a scholarship and a job. Ridley-Thomas maintains his innocence.

Still, Hutt is miles from who voters elected for their representation. She is literally an appointee of the man (Wesson) who was previously appointed to the seat and ruled ineligible. If Hutt ends up with the gig long-term, she will have a tremendous advantage in name ID and fundraising over anyone else who may run for the post in 2024.

Process: For all of the above, this was the word of the day during the council meeting, as speaker upon speaker either opined on how problematic it was, or lamented the fact that the appointment process laid out in the City Charter needs to be clarified—or worried that questions related to the process may cause people to question the legitimacy of installing Hutt. I counted the word being uttered at least 32 times and if there were a drinking game where someone took a shot whenever the word was spoken, then scads of Angelenos would be hospitalized with alcohol poisoning. I don’t think anyone was playing a drinking game, but if “process” dominates the discourse to this degree, there’s a real problem.

There were other weird moments Friday, too. As some who voted “no” on Tuesday seemed to apologize for it and stress that they adore Hutt, but they had to speak up because of, well…the process. That included Bob Blumenfield, who is emerging as one of the more compelling elected officials in the region, if only because he’s willing to describe the naked manipulation happening at City Hall. On Tuesday, he acknowledged that he was being asked to make a decision when, “I haven’t had a chance to really vet or understand the implications of what this really means.”

Blumenfield went further on Friday, describing how he had legitimate legal questions that needed answers from the City Attorney. He compared voting “no” with having to step in front of a freight train, which is a frightening description of City Hall’s power machinations. He soon added, “We spend more time on the appointment of the commissioner for aging than we have on this appointment. That’s messed up.”

As messed up it is, but Blumenfield, like others, ended up voting “aye” for Hutt. The only two on the downside were Mike Bonin and Monica Rodriguez, who in addition to voting “no” also were heard uttering “process” multiple times.

At the end of the day the votes came and Martinez got her win with her selection installed. But the same thing happened months ago with Wesson, and Ridley-Thomas’ supporters found a way to quash it. They have given no indication that they are backing off from the battle.

There is probably much more to come.