L.A. City Council votes to bring back Herb Wesson, despite a legal challenge
The Los Angeles City Council voted Tuesday to allow former Councilman Herb Wesson to return to City Hall for the next 10 months, setting the stage for a courtroom showdown over his eligibility for the post.
On a 14-0 vote, council members appointed Wesson to be the temporary voting replacement for Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who is fighting bribery and other corruption charges and was suspended by his colleagues in October.
Lawyers for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California have promised to fight the appointment in court, saying the city’s term-limit law does not permit Wesson — who has already served three terms — to return to the council. The group also wants a judge to strike down the council’s suspension of Ridley-Thomas, restoring his duties and his $223,800 annual salary.
John Sweeney, an attorney for the SCLC of Southern California, said he is hoping to have his clients’ challenge before a judge as soon as Wednesday.
The lawsuit says the city’s term-limit law bars Wesson from holding the seat, since he has already served three full terms.
“The action taken today by the Los Angeles City Council is not only disappointing and sloppy, but also it is a slap in the face to the African American community and our collective right to choose our elected representatives for ourselves,” Sweeney said in a statement.
For the last four months, Ridley-Thomas’ district has been represented by a nonvoting caretaker. The council spent more than an hour Tuesday discussing the Wesson appointment behind closed doors, then returned to open session for a trio of votes.
The council voted 8 to 6 to approve a proposal from Councilman Mike Bonin to look at whether to hold a special election for the Ridley-Thomas seat — and conduct a public discussion on the qualifications required of interim council members. Those reports are supposed to come back next week.
Council members then voted on whether to delay a decision on the Wesson appointment for seven days. It fell one vote short of passage, deadlocking at 7 to 7. Because Ridley-Thomas is not eligible to vote, no one was available to break the tie.
That vote was quickly followed by the council’s unanimous selection of Wesson. Council members did not explain the reason for their vote during the public portion of the meeting.
Council President Nury Martinez called for Wesson to fill the seat last week, describing him as the best choice for the temporary post. Wesson represented the 10th Council District, which stretches from Koreatown south to the Crenshaw Corridor in South L.A., for 15 years.
Wesson is slated to serve as a voting representative until Dec. 31, unless the charges against Ridley-Thomas are dropped or he prevails in court, which would require Wesson to step down sooner.
Federal prosecutors have accused Ridley-Thomas, while serving on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, of conspiring with a USC dean to steer county money to the university. In return, Ridley-Thomas’ son Sebastian was admitted to USC’s graduate school and given a full-tuition scholarship and a paid professorship, prosecutors alleged in their 20-count indictment.
Ridley-Thomas has pleaded not guilty. His supporters say the council’s move to suspend him denied him due process and disenfranchised his constituents.
Michael J. Proctor, Ridley-Thomas’ attorney, said council members rushed through their decision in an attempt to avoid a legal ruling. Voters in the 10th District “are asking for an elected and accountable representative, not someone hand-selected by Nury Martinez,” he said.
Bonin also criticized the council, saying Wesson was chosen in a way that “lacked transparency or public dialogue.”
“The council should have discussed all options — appointment, special election, reinstatement. And it should have discussed all of them out in the open,” he said.
Martinez, in a statement, said she had been “straightforward and transparent” with the residents of the district — and had worked to give Ridley-Thomas the space to be cleared of the charges and return to the council.
The council also voted two years ago to suspend Councilman Jose Huizar after his indictment on corruption charges. He pleaded not guilty and left the council in 2020.
“I’ve made clear my policy on how I run this council as council president,” Martinez said. “If you are indicted for a crime, this council will move to suspend you, it’s plain and simple. Herb Wesson has dedicated 30 years to this community, and at this time he is the best person for the job.”
Several callers to Tuesday’s meeting also spoke in favor of Wesson’s return.
Damien Goodmon, an activist who lives in the 10th District, argued that a special election would throw the city into a “constitutional crisis” — and damage Ridley-Thomas’ efforts to quickly clear his name.
The proposal comes four months after the City Council suspended Mark Ridley-Thomas, who is fighting corruption charges.
“Appointing anyone other than a term-limited person like Herb Wesson would advantage them in the election coming up in 2024,” Goodmon said. “That would not be fair to the district, nor would it be fair to the other people who would like to run for that seat.”
Wesson was first elected in 2005, filling the remainder of a term left vacant by former Councilman Martin Ludlow, who stepped down to take a high-level labor post.
At the time, council members were limited to two four-year terms. A year later, L.A. voters approved a ballot measure that gave council members the opportunity to seek a third four-year term.
In 2015, voters passed another measure — spearheaded by Wesson — that shifted city elections to even-numbered years. As part of that measure, the city’s elected officials received an extra year and a half in office.
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