The Los Angeles City Council voted Tuesday to allow former Councilman Herb Wesson to return to City Hall for the next 10 months, setting the stage for a courtroom showdown over his eligibility for the post.
On a 14-0 vote, council members appointed Wesson as the temporary voting replacement for Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who was suspended by his colleagues in October and is fighting bribery and other corruption charges.
Lawyers for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California have promised to fight the appointment in court, saying the city’s term-limit law does not permit Wesson — who has already served three terms — to return to the council chamber. The group also wants a judge to strike down the council’s suspension of Ridley-Thomas, restoring his duties and his $223,800 annual salary.
John Sweeney, an attorney for the SCLC of Southern California, said he is hoping to have his clients’ challenge before a judge as soon as Wednesday.
“The action taken today by the Los Angeles City Council is not only disappointing and sloppy, but also it is a slap in the face to the African American community and our collective right to choose our elected representatives for ourselves,” Sweeney said in a statement.
The council’s decision took place after more than an hour of closed-door deliberations, followed by a trio of open-session votes.
The council voted 8 to 6 to approve a proposal from Councilman Mike Bonin to look at whether to hold a special election for the Ridley-Thomas seat — and conduct a public discussion on the qualifications required of interim council members. Those reports are supposed to come back next week.
Council members then voted on whether to delay a decision on Wesson for seven days. It fell one vote short, deadlocking at 7 to 7. Because Ridley-Thomas is not eligible to vote, no one was available to break the tie.
That vote was quickly followed by the council’s unanimous selection of Wesson. No council members explained the reason for their vote during the public portion of the meeting.
Council President Nury Martinez called for Wesson to fill the seat last week, describing him as the best choice for the temporary post. Wesson represented the 10th Council District, which stretches from Koreatown south to the Crenshaw Corridor in South L.A., from 2005 to 2020.
Under Martinez’s proposal, Wesson would serve as a voting representative until Dec. 31 — unless the charges against Ridley-Thomas are dropped or he prevails in court, which would require him to step down sooner.
Federal prosecutors have accused Ridley-Thomas, while serving on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, of conspiring with a USC dean to steer county money to the university. In return, Ridley-Thomas’ son Sebastian was admitted to USC’s graduate school and given a full-tuition scholarship and a paid professorship, prosecutors alleged in their 20-count indictment.
Ridley-Thomas has pleaded not guilty. His supporters say the council’s move to suspend him denied him due process and disenfranchised his constituents.
Michael J. Proctor, an attorney for Ridley-Thomas, said his client’s chief concern was for District 10 residents.
“They are asking for an elected and accountable representative, not someone hand-selected by Nury Martinez,” he said. “Instead of allowing the voice of these voters to be heard, it is disappointing that the council rushed today’s action through to try to avoid a court ruling on their constitutional rights.”
Damien Goodmon, an activist who lives in the 10th District, argued in favor of the Wesson appointment, telling council members that a special election would throw the city into a “constitutional crisis” — and damage Ridley-Thomas’ efforts to quickly clear his name.
“Appointing anyone other than a term-limited person like Herb Wesson would advantage them in the election coming up in 2024,” Goodmon said. “That would not be fair to the district, nor would it be fair to the other people who would like to run for that seat.”
Wesson served on the council for 15 years. He was first elected in 2005, filling the remainder of a term left vacant by former Councilman Martin Ludlow, who stepped down to take a high-level labor post.
At the time, council members were limited to two four-year terms. A year later, voters approved a ballot measure that gave council members the opportunity to seek a third four-year term.
In 2015, voters passed another measure — spearheaded by Wesson — that provided the city’s elected officials an extra year and a half in office by shifting city elections to even-numbered years.