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Bass’ emergency homelessness declaration approved during tumultuous City Council meeting

A man sits alone with police near him.
Embattled City Councilman Kevin de León sits alone at the horseshoe in Los Angeles City Council chambers on Tuesday. A recess was called immediately after he entered the room.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
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The Los Angeles City Council approved Mayor Karen Bass’ declaration of a homelessness emergency at a fraught four-hour meeting Tuesday, giving the new mayor a potentially critical tool for addressing the city’s humanitarian crisis.

The vote should have been a simple procedural step. But it was thrown into jeopardy by the tumult at City Hall.

Embattled Councilmember Kevin de León stepped onto the council floor midway through the session. Council President Paul Krekorian immediately called for a recess, sending the meeting into limbo.

De León has faced widespread calls for his resignation as fallout from a racist leaked audiotape roiled the city. Several colleagues had threatened to leave the room if he showed up. Tensions intensified over the weekend after De León was involved in a fight with an activist during an Eastside Christmas tree lighting.

For much of the meeting, it was unclear whether the council would have enough members willing to sit in the room with De León and cast votes. Ten members are needed to conduct council business.

But after a long standoff, followed by De León’s exit from the room, the council ultimately voted 13 to 0 for the mayor’s declaration. Although De León was out of his chair, he was able to cast his vote from a back room that is considered part of the council chamber.

The chamber exploded with anger as protesters realized De León had voted on the proposal from outside the room, with chants of “Shame” and “You lie!” reverberating through the space.

Councilmember Hugo Soto-Martinez, who had promised earlier in the day to stay out of the chamber if De León was present, said he did not initially realize that De León was in another room casting votes.

“I saw him walk away,” he said. “I was surprised to see he was still voting.”

Soto-Martinez called De León’s behavior “despicable.” At the same time, he said, he and others were determined to cast votes on renter protections and the emergency declaration. “We just could not allow him to hold us hostage,” he said.

Had the council been unable to conduct a vote, Bass could have seen her first major policy proposal delayed by a month. The council’s next meeting is Jan. 10.

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Dozens of protesters repeatedly disrupted the meeting even before De León arrived, screaming expletives at various city officials and demanding a halt to the proceedings. Several rows of De León supporters occasionally sparred verbally with his detractors.

The disorder at City Hall raises questions about how the council will proceed if De León continues to attend meetings. It’s unclear whether the same procedural sleight of hand — with De León present but out of the room — will be used again.

A man stands on a bench inside an official-looking chamber.
Protester Greg Akili demands that council members act, as others mock and taunt embattled City Councilmember Kevin De León at the council meeting on Tuesday.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The chamber’s voting software is set to register each of the 15 lawmakers as an automatic “yes” vote. Members must press a button to vote “no” from their chairs, but can easily cast “yes” votes from outside the room.

Once council members are marked present at a meeting, they are free to chat in the hallway, go to the bathroom and make use of multiple meeting rooms behind the chamber while casting votes.

The arrangement confused many in the audience, who noticed that De León was out of the room but still marked present on a large screen above the floor.

“He can’t face us! If he’s going to vote, he needs to stand right there,” protester Brett Sullivan yelled from the audience.

The upheaval took place on a critical day for City Hall. The council cast a number of other high-profile votes, reelecting Krekorian as its president and approving a one-month extension of the city’s COVID-19 eviction moratorium.

It was also the first time five new council members took their seats around the chamber’s horseshoe, and their last meeting before their winter recess.

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At times, council members appeared to be engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with De León, with some determined to say out of whatever room he was in.

De León entered City Hall shortly before noon, escorted by several police officers. On his way in, he told a reporter that the council needed to pass the mayor’s emergency order, noting that his district has the “largest homeless population in the country.”

“We have millions of folks who go to work every day with folks that they don’t like and they still get up every morning and go to work,” he said. “We just got to get back to work.”

Once De León was in his chair, council members walked out of the chamber. Protesters angrily yelled for De León to leave, and his supporters chanted his name and “Sí, se puede.”

Krekorian called for a recess and then quietly conferred with De León for more than 15 minutes, as screams from protesters intermittently echoed throughout the room. Krekorian then exited the chamber, leaving De León alone at the horseshoe.

Two people talk.
City Councilmember Kevin De León, left, confers with Council President Paul Krekorian at the council meeting Tuesday.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

De León remained at his seat in the chamber for about an hour, occasionally conferring with staff members amid periodic outbursts from the thinning crowd.

He finally left the room a little after 1 p.m., sparking competing chants from his supporters and detractors. He then went into a back room with Krekorian.

With De León out of the room, other council members eventually filed back in, and the meeting soon reconvened. But then De León reentered, spurring Soto-Martinez and Councilmember Eunisses Hernandez to leave the room once again.

De León left his chair soon afterward, heading again to the back room. Soto-Martinez and Hernandez returned to their seats.

Some people at the council meeting expressed support for De León and frustration at disruptions. Juan Jose Gutierrez, a business owner who lives in De Leon’s district, began shouting in support as others in the council called on the councilman to resign.

“We’re sick of these professional agitators,” Gutierrez told The Times. Those angry at the councilman should go through the process of seeking a recall of De Leon, he said.

A person speaks at a lectern.
Mayor Karen Bass makes her inaugural address Sunday in Los Angeles.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
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Bass declared a state of emergency on homelessness after taking office Monday, which needed a City Council vote to go into effect. The declaration will allow her to spend money on services and facilities to assist L.A.’s unhoused population without competitive bidding or council approval.

Embattled L.A. City Councilmember Kevin de León remains defiant after an altercation with activists during a holiday event.

Dec. 11, 2022

Talking to reporters after the vote, Krekorian said it would have been a “horrible disservice” to both Bass and the city’s 40,000 unhoused individuals if the council failed to sign off on the emergency order.

“This is a great example of why this council must continue to do its work, no matter what,” he said.

After the meeting, council members joined other city officials at an outdoor reception for the council’s five newly elected members, where attendees ate chocolate crepes and listened to classic oldies, including those from Earth, Wind & Fire.

Bass showed up partway through the event to thank the council for approving her emergency declaration.

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“This is a monumental day for the city of Los Angeles,” she said in a separate statement on the vote.

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