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Judge issues order that keeps Herb Wesson off the L.A. City Council

LA Times logo LA Times 8/23/2022 David Zahniser
Former Los Angeles City Councilman Herb Wesson, appearing at a council meeting in 2019. (Los Angeles Times) © Provided by LA Times Former Los Angeles City Councilman Herb Wesson, appearing at a council meeting in 2019. (Los Angeles Times)

A judge barred former Los Angeles City Councilman Herb Wesson on Monday from returning to City Hall as a temporary fill-in for Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas for at least two months, leaving his South Los Angeles district without a voting representative.

Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff granted a request from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California for a preliminary injunction prohibiting Wesson from serving as an interim councilman until a trial is held on his appointment. The trial is set for Oct. 19.

The SCLC of Southern California has argued for months that Wesson is barred under the city's term limit law from returning to the council while Ridley-Thomas fights corruption charges. Wesson served more than three terms, the maximum allowed, before being appointed to the temporary post earlier this year.

Lawyers for the city had argued that the City Charter is silent on the question of how to fill a temporary vacancy — and that the court should defer to the council's wishes. But Beckloff sided with the plaintiffs, saying in his 10-page order that term limits expressly prohibit Wesson from serving.

Issuing an injunction, he said, would not cause the city any irreparable harm.

"A preliminary injunction would do nothing to limit the council's replacement of Wesson with an individual qualified under the Charter to serve," the judge wrote.

The City Council suspended Ridley-Thomas last year after he was indicted on federal charges of bribery, conspiracy and fraud in a case focused on his time as a county supervisor. He has pleaded not guilty.

Monday's order could prompt council members to explore whether someone else should serve as a temporary voting representative for the next few months. The trial in Ridley-Thomas' corruption case is three months away.

Heather Hutt, a political aide who ran unsuccessfully for state Assembly last year, has been serving as a nonvoting caretaker for Ridley-Thomas' district, which stretches from Koreatown to the Crenshaw Corridor. Some neighborhood leaders have already begun calling for her to be named as the district's temporary voting representative if Wesson is deemed ineligible.

"We don't want to have two months without a voting representative," said Gina Fields, who serves on the Empowerment Congress West Area neighborhood council. "That's just not practical at all."

SCLC attorney John Sweeney welcomed the judge's decision and said his clients would fight any effort to make Hutt a temporary voting member for the district.

Wesson, while serving as a temporary councilman, is the one who appointed Hutt to work as his chief of staff, Sweeney said.

"Herb Wesson had no authority, as we see with the injunction, to legally appoint anyone," he said.

A spokesman for City Atty. Mike Feuer had no comment.

Prosecutors have accused Ridley-Thomas of conspiring with a USC dean to steer county money to the university in return for admitting his son into the graduate school with full tuition and a paid professorship.

The City Council chose Wesson to serve as a temporary replacement for Ridley-Thomas in February. Under that arrangement, Wesson was to supposed to serve until Dec. 31 — or step down ahead of schedule if the charges against Ridley-Thomas were dropped or he was acquitted.

Council members had argued that the selection made sense, since Wesson had served in the seat previously and knew the district. They also argued that it would keep them from selecting someone who, after holding the office, would have a leg up in the 2024 race for Ridley-Thomas' council seat.

The SCLC of Southern California, working with several district voters, tried without success earlier this year to have the suspension of Ridley-Thomas overturned. Last month, after a circuitous administrative process, the group succeeded in persuading a judge to temporarily bar Wesson from performing any council duties.

Sweeney, in his legal filings, argued in recent weeks that district residents would face "irreparable harm" if a judge failed to impose a temporary injunction barring Wesson from acting as a temporary councilman for the district until a trial can be held on his appointment.

Lawyers for the city countered that a ruling striking down Wesson's appointment would deprive district voters of a voting representative while Ridley-Thomas is suspended.

Sweeney disputed the idea that his clients "want the council seat to remain empty."

SCLC and district voters "simply want lawful representation and for District 10 residents to have input," he said in one recent filing.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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