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Judge clears appointment of Herb Wesson to LA City Council

Wesson will fill in for Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas, who was suspended after being indicted on bribery charges.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A judge on Thursday dissolved the temporary restraining order she ordered in February, clearing the way for former Los Angeles City Council president Herb Wesson to retake his old seat on the council, if only temporarily.

The council unanimously appointed Wesson to temporarily fill in for Mark Ridley-Thomas, who was suspended from the council after he was indicted on bribery charges. Wesson previously served as councilman for the 10th District for 14 years before being termed out. He then made an unsuccessful run for a seat on the Board of Supervisors.

The council has said that Wesson will serve until the end of the year or until Ridley-Thomas is cleared of charges, whichever comes first. Ridley-Thomas has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California, a group once run by Ridley-Thomas, filed a lawsuit in LA Superior Court seeking to block Wesson's appointment and to reinstate Ridley-Thomas. At a hearing last month, Judge Mary Strobel appeared open to the plaintiff's arguments, temporarily enjoining the city from seating Wesson. At the time, she said, “I don’t see anything saying the City Council can appoint someone for a short period of time... I just don’t see that as the process that the charter contemplates.”

But in her new ruling, the judge took her cue from the 2001 case Nicolopulos v. City of Lawndale, in which a California appellate court found an elected official can't be removed from office by simply filing a writ of mandate with a court — that can be done only by a "quo warranto" proceeding. According to a document on the state attorney general's website, "California law provides that the action may be brought either by the attorney general or by others acting with the consent of the attorney general."

After the hearing, John Sweeney, a noted civil rights attorney representing the Southern Christian Leadership Alliance, said the ruling was not a defeat.

"The judge didn’t make any ruling on the legality of Mr. Wesson being seated," Sweeney said. "We just have to go through another step." He added they would be taking the matter to California Attorney General Rob Bonta. "This will be back in front of this judge."

City Council President Nury Martinez, who spearheaded the appointment of Wesson, said in a written statement: "The judge previously ruled that the council absolutely had the authority to suspend Councilmember Ridley-Thomas, and today she denied the petitioners’ request to prevent Mr. Wesson from serving as councilmember for the 10th District. The people of the 10th deserve a vote on this council and today we gave that to them."

For months after Ridley-Thomas's suspension, the 10th District, which covers parts of mid-city and South Los Angeles, lacked a voting member, a state of affairs that many activists called "disenfranchisement," even "taxation without representation." But after the appointment of Wesson as a temporary council member was proposed, some of Ridley-Thomas's allies objected, criticizing the appointment as a "back-room deal" and a "power grab" by Martinez.

"Think about the implications of the City Council getting away with these maneuverings," said another Southern Christian Leadership Alliance attorney, Crystal Nix-Hines, at Thursday's hearing. "It makes a mockery of term limits." Nix-Hines said that the quo warranto appeal could take months. In the meantime, Wesson will be serving on the City Council.

Sweeney has said that the status quo — leaving the seat unfilled — would be better than having a temporary replacement.

A recent editorial by the Los Angeles Sentinel, a widely read Black-owned weekly newspaper, blasted the lawsuit, writing: "Mark Ridley-Thomas should encourage the plaintiff and his friends to drop this frivolous lawsuit and allow Herb Wesson to serve as the 'interim' councilmember of the 10th District and let’s move forward on working for the people and not for individual glory and political gain."

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