At L.A. City Hall, some say council members should stay in their seats

Members of the Los Angeles City Council wait to start a meeting.
Los Angeles City Council members wait to start a council meeting in 2022.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)
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Good morning, and welcome to L.A. on the Record — our City Hall newsletter. It’s Dakota Smith and David Zahniser at the helm, with help from Rebecca Ellis.

When Rob Quan, an advocate for government transparency, walked up to the microphone at Tuesday’s Los Angeles City Council meeting, the oversized TV screens listed 13 council members in attendance.

The reality was quite different.

Just six of the council’s 15 members were in their seats: Eunisses Hernandez, Tim McOsker, Imelda Padilla, Monica Rodriguez, Hugo Soto-Martínez and John Lee, who was briefly chairing the meeting. A seventh, Katy Yaroslavsky, was standing next to a column on the council floor.

The city charter says that two-thirds of the council is needed for a quorum. So, 10 members must be present to conduct business.

But as The Times has previously reported, the City Council’s definition of present is a bit flexible.


Council members are considered to be in the chamber even if they are in a nearby bathroom, which plays live audio of the meeting. They’re also considered present if they are in one of two back meeting rooms, the press conference room, the snack room or the copy machine room, which also play council audio.

And they don’t need to be in their chairs to vote, because the voting system automatically records them as a “yes,” unless they manually change it to “no.”

For those watching, either from the audience or via live broadcast, it’s hard to know where the council members have gone once they have left the floor. On Tuesday, Quan suspected some weren’t really in the chamber. So he went to a courtyard down the hall and spotted two members — Heather Hutt and Kevin de León — attending a Juneteenth reception.

That means that neither should have been counted as present on the board. It’s not clear where the other council members went while Quan spoke on a number of proposals, including funding for the city’s Ethics Commission.

Quan, in an interview, said the council’s attendance system “undermines the value of public comment.”

“They should be hearing the public on this stuff,” he said.

Over the past few months, council members have been discussing an array of possible government reforms, including fewer meetings, increased ethics fines and an expansion in the size of the council. Those efforts are, in part, a reaction to a string of high-profile City Hall corruption cases, as well as a secretly recorded conversation involving De León and other politicians that included racist remarks.


Still, some say the council cannot be fully reformed until its members improve the way they interact with the public. Staying in their chairs during public comment is a key part of that, said Michael Feinstein, a former Santa Monica mayor.

“It’s massively disrespectful” to have council members out of the room when people are addressing them, said Feinstein, who also spoke to a number of empty chairs on Tuesday. Representing the Los Angeles County Green Party, Feinstein urged the city to switch to “ranked-choice” voting, which allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference instead of choosing just one.

“Even if you have a legal quorum, the fact that people aren’t there listening to you means they don’t really care about the public’s input,” he told The Times.

Hugh Esten, director of communications for council President Paul Krekorian, said in a statement that council members can still keep up from many nearby areas because of mini-speakers that broadcast the meeting audio.

“A meeting in progress, including public comment, can be very clearly heard on the audio system in these spaces,” he said.

Mandy Morales, legislative assistant for the city clerk, told The Times that a council member’s name is taken off the board when the president informs the clerk that the member has left.

De León ultimately did show up for a portion of Quan’s testimony on Tuesday. Asked Friday about Quan’s complaints, he accused Quan — who sometimes mocks the council members on social media — of being “unwell” and declined to comment further. Hutt’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.


The complaints about empty chairs aren’t new. More than a decade ago, then-Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson was spotted smoking a cigarette outside City Hall as votes were being tallied. During another vote tally, former Councilmember Janice Hahn, now a county supervisor, was seen attending a meeting in a back room with a lobbyist.

Even though the council members were not in the chambers, the automatic voting system counted them as “yes” votes because they were marked present.

The debate comes as council members are especially frustrated by the public comment period — to the point where they are looking at reducing the number of meetings. Not only can comments be esoteric, but they can sometimes be ugly.

Yaroslavsky, who has called for fewer meetings, has pointed out the racist, sexist, homophobic and antisemitic remarks from audience members. Some also regularly shout, use foul language and make derogatory statements about public officials’ looks and clothing.

Quan’s group, Unrig LA, asked candidates in the March primary about allowing council members to be counted as present — even if they are meeting with lobbyists in the back of the chambers — and the automatic voting system.

Among those who answered Unrig’s questionnaire was Adrin Nazarian, a candidate to replace Krekorian, who steps down at the end of the year because of term limits. Nazarian called the rules “concerning” and said he would advocate for a review of them.

Nazarian’s opponent in the race, business owner Jillian Burgos, responded to the questionnaire by calling the system “completely unethical.”

“Each council member should have to be present in order to vote,” she wrote. “As a Neighborhood Council Member we are required to be present and the same rules should be followed on the city level.”


State of play

— CHANGING THE CHARTER: The Los Angeles City Council voted this week to create a citizens commission that will come up with revisions to the city charter, which spells out the roles of city offices, agencies and elected officials. The commission would recommend changes that would go before voters in November 2026.

— CONVENTION CENTER UPGRADE: A City Council committee took the first step toward endorsing an expansion of the Convention Center, a project expected to cost the city $4.78 billion over 30 years. City leaders are looking at upgrading the facility before the 2028 Olympic Games and will spend up to $54.4 million to determine if the overhaul is feasible.

— SALVAGE JOB: Can Oceanwide Plaza, whose empty, graffiti-covered skyscrapers stand a few blocks from the Convention Center, still be salvaged? Or is it time for the wrecking ball? The Times looked at the options.

— GRAFFITI GONE: Meanwhile, a group of Van Nuys residents celebrated the removal of graffiti from a vacant building on Sepulveda Boulevard, according to the Los Angeles Daily News. Councilmember Imelda Padilla, who represents the area, said through an aide that her office had ordered the building cleaned up.

— POLICE PHOTO PAYOUT: The city of Los Angeles has agreed to pay $300,000 to a settle a lawsuit with a journalist and a group of activists who obtained and published photographs of LAPD officers. Lawyers with City Atty. Hydee Feldstein Soto had asked a court to order freelancer Ben Camacho and the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition to return images of officers in sensitive roles, take them off the internet and forgo publishing them in the future.

— SAVING SENIOR MEALS: L.A.’s Rapid Response Senior Meals Program, which was launched during the pandemic to help elderly low-income and homebound Angelenos, is scheduled to expire this fall. The City Council is debating whether to find the funding to continue the program, which serves about 5,800 participants.


SEEKING CASH: There’s a lot of focus in Sacramento right now on a potential climate change bond. Mayor Karen Bass this month sent a letter to state leaders requesting nearly $1 billion in climate bond funding to pay for infrastructure at the Port of L.A., rainwater capture and an L.A. River project on the city’s Eastside. Bass spokesperson Clara Karger said the Bass administration is also seeking funding for the Sepulveda Basin and emergency heat mitigation.

— KDL IN THE HOUSE: Two years ago, President Biden called for Councilmember Kevin de León to step down in the wake of the audio leak scandal. That didn’t stop De León from showing up at last weekend’s massive Biden reelection fundraiser, where he argued that too much is at stake to allow a Trump victory. Days later, De León celebrated Juneteenth by calling for Pershing Square to be renamed after Biddy Mason, the former slave who became an unsung hero of L.A.

— YSABEL ON THE MOVE: KDL’s opponent, tenant rights attorney Ysabel Jurado, was also on the go, staging a major door-knocking event in Highland Park featuring Councilmembers Eunisses Hernandez and Hugo Soto-Martínez, who have endorsed her. She also celebrated the endorsement of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, a group once closely aligned with De León.

— ON THE DEFENSE: Since taking office, L.A. County Dist. Atty. George Gascón has been sued by 20 prosecutors in a series of workplace retaliation cases. D.A. staffers say they were pushed out of leadership positions or moved into undesirable assignments because they challenged his progressive policies or the legality of his Day 1 directives.

— ANIMAL ATTACK: A Van Nuys woman whose arm was amputated after she was attacked by a dog adopted from a city animal shelter will receive up to $7.5 million in a settlement from the city. Argelia Alvarado, 74, was severely injured by a pit bull named O’Gee in September 2020.

— PRICED OUT: In a survey released this week of more than 1,000 LGBTQ+ residents, most say that Los Angeles County is a welcoming place to live, but many wonder if they can afford to stay. Compared with other county residents, a disproportionate number of LGBTQ+ people have grappled with food insecurity and homelessness, the survey found.


— UTILITY PLAYER: The LAT’s Boiling Point newsletter recently sat down with Janisse Quiñones, the newly appointed head of the Department of Water and Power, to discuss the agency’s clean energy goals, its turn toward hydrogen power and her record in the private sector.

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  • Where is Inside Safe? The mayor’s program to combat homelessness went to 10th Street and Gramercy Place, an intersection represented by Councilmember Katy Yaroslavsky.
  • On the docket for next week: The City Council is expected to take up a Nov. 5 ballot proposal to rework the disciplinary system at the Los Angeles Police Department.

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