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Lawmakers, clergy question legality of council’s suspending Mark Ridley-Thomas after indictment

Mark Ridley-Thomas
Then-Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas after casting his vote at Hot and Cool Cafe in Leimert Park on Nov. 3.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)
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Two state legislators are questioning the legality of the Los Angeles City Council’s move to suspend Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas and potentially appoint a voting member to represent his district after the councilman was indicted last year on federal bribery charges.

Ridley-Thomas, whose 10th District includes neighborhoods in South L.A. and Mid-City, has pleaded not guilty to the charges, and a trial has not yet begun.

In a letter sent Thursday to California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta, state Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena), chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus, and Assemblyman Mike Gipson (D-Carson), chair of the Democratic Caucus, asked the state’s top prosecutor to opine on the constitutionality of suspending an elected official pending the outcome of a judicial proceeding.

They noted the City Council considered the motion to suspend Ridley-Thomas Oct. 20, just 24 hours after it was introduced by Council President Nury Martinez. The council waived the customary public hearing requirements before voting, “effectively discouraging opportunities for 10th Council District constituents to be meaningfully heard on the matter,” the legislators wrote.

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The lawmakers also questioned whether the City Council can legally appoint a replacement, writing that, per their understanding, the council has declared Ridley-Thomas’ seat to be temporarily vacant and would have to take further action to make that vacancy permanent in order to replace him.

“Based on our review, it appears that the declaration of a permanent vacancy is not only inappropriate, but illegal,” they wrote. “As referenced above, the Council member is on record confirming his commitment to continue to serve, but has been blocked from doing so based on a constitutionally dubious suspension.”

Similar concerns were expressed in a letter from prominent clergy, including Presiding Bishop Emeritus Charles E. Blake, Sr., pastor of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ; Norman S. Johnson, pastor of the First New Christian Fellowship Baptist Church; and Rev. K.W. Tulloss, president of the Baptist Ministers Conference of Los Angeles.

“Tenth Council District constituents were summarily denied their elected representative on important matters through an arbitrary, hasty, legally questionable, punitive and pernicious decision made at the sole discretion of a City Council majority under your leadership,” they wrote in a Jan. 28 letter to Martinez and Council President Pro Tempore Mitch O’Farrell.

“In this process, your leadership has produced two irreconcilable issues: providing independent, credible and accountable CD10 representation and preservation of the seat to which Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas was elected with a 60% majority in November 2020 pending the outcome of his trial.”

The council should have explored alternatives to suspending Ridley-Thomas, wrote the faith leaders, who signed under the banner of South Los Angeles Clergy for Public Accountability.

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“Council member Ridley-Thomas shares the concerns expressed by the elected officials and the clergy about the Council’s improper actions,” his attorney Michael J. Proctor said Saturday in a statement. “From the beginning, Council member Ridley-Thomas has pledged his commitment to honorably serve his constituents, and he remains dedicated to doing so.”

That comes after the Los Angeles Sentinel reported that Martinez plans to appoint a voting member to represent the 10th District in coming weeks.

“The residents of Council District 10 deserve to have a voting member from their community represent them on the City Council,” Martinez told the publication.

Such an appointment, which would be introduced as a motion in council, will enable district residents to have a voice but also allow Ridley-Thomas to return if the case is resolved before his term is completed, the Sentinel reported. By contrast, if a special election were to be held so residents could elect another council member and Ridley-Thomas were to be cleared of the charges before the end of his term, it would create a City Charter crisis because there would be two members elected to the same seat, Martinez told the outlet.

A spokeswoman for Martinez declined to comment further Saturday.

Ridley-Thomas was indicted Oct. 13 on accusations he conspired with Marilyn Louise Flynn, former dean of USC’s School of Social Work, to steer county money to the university in return for admission of his son Sebastian into graduate school, with a full-tuition scholarship, and a paid professorship. The 20-count indictment includes charges of conspiracy, bribery and wire fraud.

Full coverage of Mark Ridley-Thomas, his son and the USC School of Social Work.

Oct. 25, 2021

Ridley-Thomas, who has said he will not resign and will fight the federal charges against him, initially sent a letter to the council announcing that he would “step back” from participation in City Council meetings and committees.

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Two days later, the council voted to suspend Ridley-Thomas, barring him from attending council and committee meetings, executing contracts, using discretionary funds and engaging in constituent services. City Controller Ron Galperin then moved to stop Ridley-Thomas’s salary payments and benefits.

The following month, Martinez named Ridley-Thomas’ chief of staff, Karly Katona, caretaker for the 10th District. She is not a councilmember, nor does she have voting powers.

The council took the similar action of suspending then-City Councilmember Jose Huizar in 2020 after he was arrested and charged in a sprawling corruption case. In that instance, Galperin also moved to stop payments to Huizar. City Councilman Kevin de León, who had won election to represent the district, took over the seat early.

Martinez’s motion says the City Charter allows the council to “suspend any elected officer against whom felony criminal proceedings” have begun. The state lawmakers who wrote to Bonta asked for his advice on whether the charter conflicts with the state constitution, as well as whether the constitution or employment law extend due process protections to elected officials who are suspended from office while criminal proceedings are still pending.

The lawmakers also asked the attorney general whether the council had violated the California Voting Rights act by denying constituents the elected representative of their choice pending the trial’s outcome.

“In the current political climate, we are concerned by any action that could disenfranchise historically marginalized communities and lead to the unseating of an elected official — especially an African American man with a three decades long legacy of exemplary public service — without the most thoughtful consideration and objective legal advice,” they wrote.

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In the other letter, the clergy urged City Council to refrain from appointing a replacement for Ridley-Thomas, writing that such a council member would be beholden to the majority of the council who appointed them rather than to constituents.

“We write with sober concern that the unseating of an elected official, especially an African American man with a three decade-long legacy of committed public service, however ‘temporarily’ — should not be pursued at this time prior to the outcome of his trial,” they wrote. “We are dismayed by the crass attempts of self-interested elected officials elsewhere to nullify the votes of people of color, dismiss our concerns, erode support for representative democracy, ignore appeals of equal protection and due process, and disregard application of the presumption of innocence when it comes to those of a darker hue.”

Times staff writers Dakota Smith and Benjamin Oreskes contributed to this report.

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