LOS ANGELES (CN) — Los Angeles City Council member and erstwhile president Nury Martinez resigned from office on Wednesday, days after an audio recording surfaced of a meeting between her, two councilmen and a labor leader in which numerous racial slurs were used, some to describe the Black adopted son of a gay colleague.
"It is with a broken heart that I resign my seat for Council District 6, the community I grew up in and my home," Martinez said in a written statement, in which she touted her accomplishments and apologized to her staff. In the penultimate line she wrote: "To all little Latina girls across this city — I hope I’ve inspired you to dream beyond that which you can see."
The now infamous 80-minute audio leak has sent shockwaves through LA's political establishment. Most of the region's elected officials — and even President Joe Biden — have urged all four officials to resign. Some on the council, meanwhile, are eyeing certain reforms, like adding more seats to the 15-seat body and setting up an independent redistricting commission. Other elected officials, including City Attorney Mike Feuer and state Senator Ben Allen, have called for that same reform.
The City Council tried to meet Wednesday before Martinez resigned, but were effectively stopped by angry activists irate that Martinez, Gil Cedillo and Kevin de Leon still held office.
While most of the outrage has been focused on racist language used during the meeting, it's the content of the conversation that could land its participants in legal trouble.
Much of the meeting was focused on redistricting, the once-in-a-decade process in which legislative lines are drawn. California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced Wednesday that he's launching an investigation into the LA City Council's redistricting process.
"The decennial redistricting process is foundational for our democracy and for the ability of our communities to make their voices heard — and it must be above reproach," said Bonta in a statement. The leaked audio has cast doubt on a cornerstone of our political processes for Los Angeles.
While the state's legislative lines are drawn by an independent commission, the city has an advisory commission appointed by the mayor and City Council. The commission hires a staff of experts, takes input from the public and draws a detailed map, but the city council still has the authority to make whatever changes it wants.
Critics have said the process is driven by venal political ambitions, controlled by backroom deals, and amounts to little more than elected officials choosing their voters rather than the other way around. For many, the audio leak confirmed their worst fears and conspiracy theories.
"It’s wild to see everything you already thought corroborated, and realize it’s worse than you thought," said Rob Quan, an organizer with Unrig LA and a frequent critic of the redistricting process, "as far as who these different cliques were and what the internal politics were like."
It's unclear what law, if any, the three council members may have broken. One possibility is the Brown Act, the state's public meeting law, which forbids the majority of any elected body from meeting in private. Though the three members constitute only a fifth of the counsel, they refer to conversations they held with other council members, which may constitute a "serial meeting" – a chain of meetings in which the same topic is discussed, which is forbidden by the law.
Bonta may also be looking into whether or not Martinez and the others violated the FairMaps act, which Bonta himself authored in 2019, which set certain criteria that redistricting commissions could and couldn't consider when drawing maps.
"We’re gathering the facts and we’ll be conducting our investigation. And when it’s full and thorough and comprehensive and complete, we’ll have something to share about what liability there might be, either civil or criminal," Bonta said Wednesday.
One flashpoint during the 2021 redistricting process was the battle over the University of Southern California between two Black councilmen — Marqueece Harris-Dawson and Curren Price — both of whom wanted the private university in their district. During the meeting, which took place in October, as the commission was just finishing up its work and the council was getting ready to take over, Martinez took Price's side and said USC should remain in his district along with its nearby museums and stadiums.
"He needs those assets to run for reelect," Martinez said. "That’s his platform — job creation, economic development. Todo eso ("All that"). Leave him alone."
She added: "Tell Marqueece to go after the airport. You got the people mover — whatever that shit is called. You got the modernization. Billions of dollars worth of contracts at the airports, negotiating with neighbors. You want to be a baller? Go after that. Because that’s where the money is at."
The notion of economic "assets" came up time and again during the public meetings over redistricting. Just why an elected official would want an "asset," like an airport, university, hospital or stadium, is the subject of some debate. The cynical interpretation is that council members want to raise campaign contributions from the businesses themselves, and the businesses nearby — say, the car rental companies near LAX. The more charitable interpretation, the one Martinez alludes to, is that elected officials like to be able to brag to voters about brining economic activity to the district.
A third reason is that council members control special "amenity funds" that get set up when developments are approved. In exchange for zoning variances, a large developer may agree to contribute a pot of money to a nonprofit or a fund for some community amenity — perhaps a small park or traffic median. The council member who represents the area will typically control where the money goes.
Either way, to many the idea of council members squabbling over "assets" bears the stink of corruption.
“The idea of ‘assets’ is a part of the redistricting process in LA that is really corrupting," said Paul Mitchell, owner of Redistricting Partners, who worked for the commission as a consultant. "They have convinced local leaders and themselves that if you have poor district, you need assets. But having an 'asset' that’s a developer or big business is just giving those lobbyists more influence over that elected official. It’s not making them better at serving their constituents.”
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