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Herb Wesson tapped to fill in for indicted LA councilman

The former council president will serve for the remainder of the year, or until Mark Ridley-Thomas is acquitted — "whichever comes first."

LOS ANGELES (CN) — The Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to appoint former Councilman Herb Wesson to temporarily fill the seat of Mark Ridley-Thomas, who was suspended by the council this October after he was indicted on bribery charges.

Wesson's appointment came despite a lawsuit filed Friday seeking to reinstate Ridley-Thomas and block any replacement.

For the last five months, Ridley-Thomas's old chief of staff Karly Katona has served as caretaker for City Council District 10, overseeing the office, which has continued to perform most of its services. But she hasn't been able to vote on citywide ordinances. This led many in the district, which covers parts of mid-city, Koreatown and South LA to say they have been without representation.

"Right now we have no representative," said Jackie Ryan, a representative of the Empowerment Congress West Area Neighborhood Development Council, during the City Council meeting's public comment period. "People need a vote."

For many, Wesson was the obvious choice. The 70-year-old served as city councilman for the 10th District for 15 years, covering the three terms. He served as council president for eight of those years, where was considered an especially powerful figure at City Hall. Term limits prevented him from running for a fourth term, and he was defeated in his 2020 bid for a seat on the county Board of Supervisors. He has since worked as a consultant.

"With over 30 years in public service representing the residents of Council District 10, there is no better choice at this time than former Councilmember Herb Wesson,” said current City Council President Nury Martinez in a written statement last week. “The constituents of Council District 10 need a voting member who understands their community to represent them within council chambers.”

The move is similar to the one the council made in 2019, after City Councilman Mitch Englander resigned and the council appointed Greig Smith, Englander's predecessor, as a temporary replacement. Englander later pleaded guilty to falsifying material facts and as part of a plea deal admitted to lying to federal investigators. He was sentenced to 14 months in federal prison.

According to the motion introduced by Martinez, Wesson will serve for the rest of the year, or until Ridley-Thomas is acquitted — "whichever comes first." Martinez has said that appointing a temporary replacement is better than holding a special election, since that would leave the council district with two representatives if Ridley-Thomas is acquitted or if the charges are dropped.

Ridley-Thomas's trial is currently scheduled to start in August, though it may be delayed. He faces federal charges of accepting a bribe from the University of Southern California in the form of a scholarship for his son Sebastian, a former state legislator who resigned amid accusations of sexual harassment. Prosecutors say Sebastian Ridley-Thomas received from USC "a full-tuition scholarship, a paid professorship, and a mechanism to funnel [Mark] Ridley-Thomas campaign funds through the university to a nonprofit to be operated by" Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, according to statement by the U.S. Department of Justice. In exchange, Mark Ridley-Thomas, then still serving on the LA County Board of Supervisors, worked to steer county contracts toward USC's school of social work.

Mark Ridley-Thomas has pleaded not guilty. Some community groups have objected to his suspension, likening the move to voter disenfranchisement. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California, which filed the lawsuit objecting to Wesson's appointment, argue as much.

"The decision to suspend MRT contravenes the bedrock presumption of innocence guaranteed under California law," the group says in its lawsuit. "It conflicts with the plain language of the California Constitution and City Charter. And it deprives more than 230,000 residents of District 10 — a district with one of the highest percentages of African Americans in Los Angeles — of their chosen representative who has faithfully, effectively, and actively served the Los Angeles Community for over 30 years."

John Sweeney, the noted civil rights attorney who is representing the plaintiffs, did not return a phone call requesting a comment.

Before the vote to appoint Wesson, the City Council went into closed session for nearly two hours. It then voted on a motion by City Councilman Mike Bonin to ask the city attorney and chief legislative officer to report back to the council on all alternatives to a temporary replacement. That motion passed narrowly, 8-6.

Confusion then reigned, as council members argued with each other and their staff on whether or not the original vote was postponed, pending those reports. It was decided that the council would vote on whether or not to postpone the vote on Wesson's appointment. That motion failed after the council deadlocked, 7-7. Finally, the motion to appoint Wesson passed 14-0.

Wesson could not be reached for comment. He wrote last week in a tweet: "My neighbors have once again called on me to serve and it is my responsibility to answer that call. I hope to do the residents of the 10th proud."

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