As the city smokes, LA politicians are on the prowl

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The council’s current preoccupation is who, if anyone, will fill a seat that’s semi-vacant because its occupant, Mark Ridley-Thomas, has been indicted on federal corruption charges for things he did as a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

Ridley-Thomas allegedly promised to steer county contracts to the school if it gave his son a scholarship and a teaching position. A college official also was indicted.

Ridley-Thomas, of course, opposed his ouster and his supporters, led by the influential Southern Christian Leadership Conference, sued to block the maneuver, contending that Wesson was ineligible to join the council because he had already reached his maximum number of service years under the city’s term limit law.

Ridley-Thomas offered to suspend his city council duties until his criminal case was settled but the council’s president, Nury Martinez, led an effort within the council to make his suspension official and appoint a former councilman, Herb Wesson, as an interim member with voting privileges.

Story Highlights

  • However, the Los Angeles City Council is in a class by itself, with 15 members – all but one Democrats – clawing and scratching for dominance while the city they govern continues its socioeconomic deterioration.

  • Ridley-Thomas, who has held one office or another for more than three decades, including a stint in the Legislature, is charged with using his position to get his son, also a former legislator, admitted to the University of Southern California School of Social Work.

Wesson is a long-time ally of Martinez in the council’s internal power struggles and having him take the seat would bolster her position vis-à-vis her rivals – and that’s one reason why the Ridley-Thomas faction prefers that his position remain vacant while his criminal case proceeds.

In February, the Ridley-Thomas group persuaded Superior Court Judge Mary Strobel to block Wesson from taking the seat, saying the suit would likely succeed, then reversed herself two weeks earlier and tossed the issue to Attorney General Rob Bonta. Under California law, anyone who challenges the validity of an officeholder, known as a “quo warranto action,” must get the attorney general’s permission to proceed.

While Bonta’s office weighed the issue, Martinez and her allies voted to sit Wesson as a voting member of the council – so empowered, they believe, because Judge Strobel had lifted her order. This month, Bonta finally acted, issuing an eight-page decision saying that Ridley-Thomas’ supporters should be allowed to contest Wesson’s appointment.

“We conclude that substantial questions of law exist as to whether Wesson’s appointment to the Los Angeles City Council was lawful,” Bonta said in his decision. “Further, the public interest will be served by allowing the proposed quo warranto action to proceed.” Bonta’s decision, in effect, tosses the issue back to Judge Strobel, who will be pressed by Ridley-Thomas and his supporters to once gain block Wesson from acting as a city councilman while their suit proceeds.

Everyone involved insists, of course, that they are merely doing the right thing for residents of the poverty-ridden district in South Los Angeles that Ridley-Thomas had represented for just a year before being indicted. But they are merely pawns in the political power game, as are the city’s other residents whose interests take a back seat in the council’s perpetual infighting. Meanwhile, the city’s streets have become choked with squalid encampments of the homeless, crime has spiked upward and its lame duck mayor, Eric Garcetti, is AWOL, fighting an uphill battle for Senate confirmation as U.S. ambassador to India.

CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers.