Los Angeles Times
Ruling leaves Wesson in limbo
A judge temporarily bars him from performing City Council duties.
A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled Tuesday that L.A. City Councilman Herb Wesson cannot perform the duties of his office, at least temporarily.
The move hands a victory to a civil rights group and allies of Mark Ridley-Thomas, the 10th District councilman who was suspended after being indicted by federal prosecutors last fall.
Wesson, who already served three terms on the council, was appointed as a temporary replacement by the council earlier this year.
Representatives of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California and several other plaintiffs objected to the appointment and sued. They requested that Wesson be removed from the post pending the verdict from the judge.
Superior Court Judge Mary H. Strobel didn’t remove Wesson but instead said the longtime Los Angeles politician is “enjoined from performing any functions of a council member.“
These allies of RidleyThomas were pleased with Strobel’s ruling. They said they did not want Wesson to represent them.
“I’m happy for my clients, because justice was served for them because they didn’t vote for Mr. Wesson,” John Sweeney, the attorney for the SCLC of Southern California, said after the hearing. “Now they can have a say in who was temporarily appointed to represent them.”
In the late 1980s, before he was elected to public office, Ridley-Thomas served as executive director of the SCLC’s Los Angeles chapter and has long represented South Los Angeles as a councilman, county supervisor and state senator.
One of the other plaintiffs in the case, Harry McElroy, was in court Tuesday and said there is an “easy solution” to fix the revolving door of leadership in the council district.
“Reinstate Mr. RidleyThomas,” he said, noting the councilman is “innocent un
til proven guilty.”
Strobel said the plaintiffs, who include McElroy and a group of voters in Ridley-Thomas’ district, have a sufficient likelihood of prevailing in their argument that Wesson is legally barred from returning to the council on an interim basis, since he has already served the maximum number of terms under the city’s term limit law.
The city and the plaintiffs will appear before Strobel again next month. It was not immediately clear what tasks Wesson would be allowed to perform while still representing the 10th District.
After the hearing, Sweeney said he thinks this ruling means that Wesson “cannot implement his own policies and that he can’t vote, which is crucial, and it means for my clients that they can have a voice in who represents them.”
The city attorney’s office declined to comment. A representative of Wesson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
During the hearing Tuesday and in court documents, Sweeney argued “Council President [Nury] Martinez ignored these express term limits in trumpeting Mr. Wesson, raising questions about the motives for his selection.”
In an interview, Sweeney said he’d like to see a temporary appointment process that is more transparent and better incorporates the views of voters in the district. He said that the way Martinez went about the selection deprived voters in Ridley-Thomas’ district of a say in the process.
“It’s wrong that a group of individuals with suspect agendas are working to keep over 250,000 residents from having representation on this council,” Martinez said Tuesday of the push to unseat Wesson.
Strobel broadly sided with the plaintiffs’ arguments, concluding that there was “no factual dispute that Mr. Wesson has served more than three terms and would violate the term-limit provision.”
Strobel made clear that she didn’t object to someone being appointed to this role, but based on the arguments presented, that it likely couldn’t be Wesson.
Lawyers for the city unsuccessfully argued that there was an ambiguity in the language of the City Charter, which doesn’t lay out a clear process for what to do when a person has been suspended but hasn’t resigned. They said it was the council’s place to step in and reconcile this confusion.
Part of the deal for Wesson to return was that he would serve until Dec. 31. Under that plan, Wesson would step down at an earlier date if the charges against RidleyThomas were dropped or if he prevailed in court.
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 and the University of Southern California.
His trial is scheduled for November.
Earlier this year, Strobel had temporarily blocked Wesson’s appointment only to backtrack weeks later and say the case couldn’t proceed until the plaintiffs had obtained permission from state Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta to pursue a quo warranto action — a challenge to a public official’s eligibility to hold public office.
Such challenges cannot be filed by a private party without the attorney general’s consent.
Wesson returned to the council in March and began casting votes. He fired Ridley-Thomas’ top two deputies, one of whom had spent several months as the district’s nonvoting caretaker. Wesson, a former Assembly member who lost a race for county supervisor in 2020, hired Heather Hutt as his chief of staff.
Then last month, Bonta’s office allowed the legal challenge of Wesson’s appointment to proceed.
“We conclude that substantial questions of law exist as to whether Wesson’s appointment to the Los Angeles City Council was lawful,” Bonta’s decision said.