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LA City Council eyes reform as angry protesters demand resignations after racist audio leak

In a rare instance of the White House weighing in on LA city politics, President Joe Biden's press secretary said the president is calling on the three council members implicated in the audio leak to resign.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — Los Angeles City Hall is reeling after a secret audio recording of an expletive-filled meeting between three City Council members and a labor leader, in which numerous insults racial slurs were hurled around, was made public.

On Tuesday, the council met for the first time since the leak. Hundreds of angry protesters showed up demanding the three council members resign from office. The fourth person in the room, Ron Herrera, has already stepped down as head of the LA County Federation of Labor.

Hours before the meeting started, City Council member Nury Martinez — the council president until she stepped down from that post Monday — announced that she was taking a leave of absence to "take some time to have an honest and heartfelt conversation with my family, my constituents and community leaders."

On the 80-minute audio recording, Martinez could be heard insulting numerous elected officials, at times employing racial slurs. She called her colleague, City Councilman Mike Bonin — who is gay — "a little bitch" and compared his adopted Black son to a "monkey" and suggested that Bonin was raising him too leniently, saying "They're raising him like a little white kid." She also insulted District Attorney George Gascón — "Fuck that guy. He's with the Blacks."

Shortly after Tuesday's council meeting ended, President Joe Biden's press secretary weighed in on the matter — the first time in recent memory the White House has commented on LA City Hall politics, a sign of how much notoriety the scandal has drawn.

"The president is glad to see that one of the participants in that conversation has resigned, but they all should,” Karine Jean-Pierre said at a televised briefing. She called conversation in the audio recording “appalling” and “unacceptable.”

Gil Cedillo and Kevin de Leon, the two other council members in the meeting, have not resigned. In fact, they showed up at the meeting only to be met by thunderous cries of "Fuera!" ("Out!") and "Leave!" from the audience in council chambers. After a brief and loud standoff, where the audience would not let the meeting begin unless the two left the room, Cedillo and de Leon departed.

Only a tearful speech from Councilman Bonin was enough to mollify the crowd.

"My husband and I are both raw and angry and heartbroken and sick for our family and for Los Angeles," Bonin said, through sobs. "The tapes contain much more than the comments about my son. These words, they cut, and they stung. I know that I can never really know, or comprehend, or feel the weight of the daily relentless racism, the anti-Black racism that my son is gonna face. But man, I know the fire you feel when someone tries to destroy Black boy joy."

He added: "Asking for forgiveness is a good first step. Well, it’s a good second step. First, you must resign."

After the emotional speech, acting City Council President Mitch O'Farrell — formerly a close ally of Martinez — tried to start the meeting, but was drowned out by a chorus of 'boos.'

"We want your resignation Mitch!" someone in the gallery shouted.

Protesters hold up signs in Los Angeles City Council chambers, calling on Councilmember Nury Martinez to resign (Hillel Aron/Courthouse News)

After a brief recess, public comment began. It lasted for nearly two hours. Only then was O'Farrell allowed to speak.

"I do not believe we can have the healing that is necessary while Nury Martinez, Gil Cedillo and Kevin de Leon remain members of this council," he said. "The court of public opinion has rendered a verdict, and the verdict is they all must resign." This time, he was met with a roar of approval.

O'Farrell then introduced a motion calling for a ballot measure to expand the City Council, a reform proposal that some have been advocating for years. Currently, the council has 15 seats — about one member for every 266,666 residents. By comparison, New York's City Council has 51 seats, or about one representative for every 172,549 residents.

"The council should reflect the city residents that they serve; a charter amendment to increase the number of seats... will help meet that goal," O'Farrell's motion read. After the meeting, O'Farrell declined to say how many seats he thought the council should have. If passed, the city attorney would be directed to author a referendum that Angelenos would vote on in 2024.

Nithya Raman, another progressive council member who was insulted by Martinez in the leaked audio, also introduced a motion to form a committee on "government reform." Raman's motion suggested that the council consider a slew of radical reforms, including the expansion of the council but also "removing City Council members' direct discretionary power over land use decisions in their districts" and "establishing a truly independent redistricting commission."

Other council members introduced motions calling for the censure of the three council members captured on the audio leak. Those motions, as well as the election of a new City Council president, will likely be voted on next Tuesday.

The council does not have the power to remove one of their own from office unless they've been convicted of a crime. Last year, they suspended Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas after he was indicted on federal bribery charges.

Between a series of bribery scandals, the fallout from the leaked audio recording and the regular election cycle, City Hall faces an unprecedented upheaval. Ridley-Thomas's trial is set to begin soon; should he be convicted, a special election will be held to replace him. Cedillo lost his reelection bid and will be replaced in December. O'Farrell, too, faces a tough reelection bid in November and could well be replaced. Bonin and Joe Buscaino chose not to run again.

If Martinez and de Leon resign, more than half the council — eight out of 15 seats — will turn over sometime in the next year or so. There will also be a new mayor, controller and city attorney.

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