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Editorial: L.A. is too quick to freeze City Council members’ pay upon suspension

Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin gesturing as he speaks into a microphone next to a screen displaying a graphic
Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin has stopped paychecks for City Council members suspended from performing their official duties.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
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Here’s an unpopular opinion: Los Angeles elected officials charged with corruption or sidelined by a pending court decision should continue to be paid while awaiting judgment.

Three members of the City Council have been removed from their official duties over the last two years, including temporary replacement Councilmember Herb Wesson, prompting City Controller Ron Galperin to stop their paychecks. A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge last week blocked Wesson from serving on the council pending a decision on whether he is barred from returning to the council after being termed out; he was appointed to replace suspended City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas.

It’s entirely appropriate to suspend indicted elected leaders accused of abusing the power of their office. They can’t be allowed to do the public’s business while facing such serious charges. (This board has called on elected officials charged with corruption to voluntarily step down for the good of their constituents, but most officials have ignored that plea.)

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The City Council was right to suspend Ridley-Thomas after he was charged last year with conspiring with the former dean of USC’s School of Social Work to steer county contracts to the school in return for admitting his son into the graduate program with a full-tuition scholarship and paid professorship. And it was the right decision to suspend Councilman Jose Huizar in 2020 when he was indicted for allegedly using his position to rake in $1.5 million in cash bribes and other benefits from real estate developers looking to build in L.A.

Want to reduce the risk of political corruption in Los Angeles development decisions? Take the politicians out of the process.

Aug. 24, 2020

But the move by Galperin to stop paying the salaries upon the councilmembers’ suspension should give pause. Why should elected officials who have been accused of crimes but not convicted lose their salary? It tramples on due process and the presumption of innocence before conviction.

Suspension is designed to reduce the risk posed by elected officials charged with corruption; halting their pay is punitive.

There’s certainly an appeal in cutting off paychecks to elected officials accused of wrongdoing. In 2014, after two state senators were charged with bribery and public corruption and another senator was convicted of lying to voters about living in his district, there was plenty of outrage that the lawmakers were suspended with pay. Two years later, lawmakers put Proposition 50 on the ballot, asking voters to explicitly authorize the Legislature to suspend members without pay on a two-thirds vote. The Times Editorial Board opposed Proposition 50 because “it would violate the right to due process afforded to every citizen of this country, including politicians who are behaving badly.”

Proposition 50 passed with 76% support.

There are legitimate legal concerns about whether former Councilman Herb Wesson is eligible to be the temporary Council District 10 replacement.

March 25, 2022

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Galperin’s office defends its actions by saying that if an elected official is no longer able to perform their duties as outlined under the City Charter, then they cannot draw a public salary. Neither Ridley-Thomas nor Huizar challenged the pay freeze. The last time an elected official was accused of a crime was in 2010, when Councilmember Richard Alarcon was charged with perjury and voter fraud for allegedly living outside his district. His council colleagues did not suspend him. And that’s another concern — there is no clarity on what crimes or actions should cause elected officials to be suspended from their duties and have pay halted. The lack of consistency and clear guidelines leave punishment to political whims.

Wesson’s case is different from Ridley-Thomas’ and Huizar‘s, since the judge ordered him sidelined while the court decides whether he is legally allowed to serve. Was it premature or fair to halt his pay while awaiting a court decision? (Of course, this dilemma could have been avoided if Council President Nury Martinez and the City Council had picked a temporary replacement who wasn’t termed out.)

It may be legal to halt elected officials’ pay while they are suspended, but that doesn’t mean it’s fair or respects due process. Given the number of elected officials indicted in recent years and questions over how and when to fill vacancies, it’s worth amending the City Charter to make clear what the City Council and the city controller can and cannot do, as well as what it should and should not do.

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