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Herb Wesson remains blocked from serving on LA City Council

Whether the three-term councilmember will be allowed to sit as a replacement appears to turn on a fine parsing of the city charter.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — In a case that's beginning to take on a distinct "Groundhog Day"-like quality, a Los Angeles County judge indicated Wednesday he would likely extend a temporary restraining order barring former City Councilmember Herb Wesson from serving in his old seat as a temporary replacement.

Wesson was appointed as a temporary replacement for 10th District City Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas, who was suspended following his indictment on bribery charges. Wesson had already served on the council for 15 years, comprising three terms — the maximum allowed by law. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) of Southern California, a nonprofit formerly run by Ridley-Thomas, sued the city over Ridley-Thomas' suspension and Wesson's appointment, arguing, among other things, that Wesson was already "termed out" and therefore couldn't be seated.

LA County Superior Court Judge Judge Mary Strobel initially blocked Wesson's appointment, temporarily. Weeks later, she reversed herself, finding the plaintiffs needed to be granted standing by California Attorney General Rob Bonta. After Bonta did just that, Strobel once again temporarily blocked Wesson from "performing any functions of a council member."

Wesson's pay was halted and his chief of staff, Heather Hutt, was installed as nonvoting caretaker for the 10th District.

But then, in early August, a twist: Judge Strobel recused herself, noting the city in a recent court filing had argued "the legislative history of proposed changes to the city charter in 1999 are relevant to the issues in the preliminary injunction." Strobel, as it turned out, had worked as a staff member for the elected Charter Reform Commission, one of two commissions tasked to rewrite the city charter. The case was reassigned to Judge Mitchell Beckloff.

The city's charter allows the City Council to suspend "any elected officer" against whom there are felony criminal proceedings. It then states: "The temporary vacancy shall be filled in accordance with the charter." Was that vague line a throwaway or something more?

Lawyers for the city argued the council should have the power to appoint whoever it wants to because the city charter doesn't expressly forbid it; that is, it doesn't spell out that the replacement can't be a council member who's already termed out. The nonprofit's lawyers argued that that last phrase is clear — "accordance with the charter" includes adhering to term limits.

"It's impossible to see how Mr. Wesson's appointment doesn’t violate term limits," said plaintiff's attorney Crystal Nix-Hines.

Judge Beckloff indicated he is inclined to agree with the plaintiffs and would likely extend the restraining order, though he did not make the ruling final. Another hearing on the matter — the final one perhaps — is scheduled for mid-October.

After the hearing, Pastor William Smart, president of the SCLC, said, "[City Council President] Nury Martinez and the City Council, they have got to come clean with the members of CD 10. Sit down and have a clear meeting with them, and not a side meeting, in a very reputable way. The council needs to meet with all the players come to the table now."

When asked who a suitable replacement might be, SCLC lawyer John Sweeney said, "We will see who they float, and we will react accordingly."

Wesson's appointment was in keeping with recent tradition. After City Councilman Mitch Englander resigned in 2019, the council appointed Englander's predecessor Greig Smith as his temporarily replacement — but Smith had only served two terms. One benefit of such an appointment is that it doesn't give any potential future candidate a leg up, by anointing them an incumbent.

Ridley-Thomas' trial on bribery charges is currently scheduled to start Nov. 15. The longtime politician, who has served in both branches of the California Legislature and on the County Board of Supervisors, is accused of convincing the Board of Supervisors to hand contracts to USC's school of social work in exchange for a series of favors for his son Sebastian.

In July, Ridley-Thomas filed a lawsuit to have his pay reinstated.

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