Despite the fact that Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas was suspended from office by a divided Council last October, the 10th District staff has carried on.
Ridley-Thomas and USC’s Marilyn Flynn both pleaded not guilty of bribery and conspiracy and will, in August, face arraignment on 20 charges stemming from Ridley-Thomas’ time serving on the county Board of Supervisors. He is accused of getting his son into USC’s graduate school and receiving other benefits in exchange for steering favorable county service contracts to the university.
“When the university learned in the summer of 2018 about the $100,000 referenced in the indictment, the university disclosed the issue to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and has fully cooperated ever since,” USC said in a statement. Marilyn Flynn has not been employed by the university since September 2018.
Even without an council representation, staff of the 10th Council District collaborated with the Empowerment Congress two months ago to host a specialized training session with community leaders, neighborhood council representatives, and members of the faith community. The teach-in allowed participants to reflect on what has driven their personal engagement on civic issues.
“The 10th District is proud to partner with the Empowerment Congress to create opportunities for residents to not just be educated and engaged on the issues that impact their communities, but feel personally empowered to make a difference,” said Karly Katona, Ridley-Thomas’ Chief of Staff, who has been the caretaker for the district since November.
Katona, who was appointed by Council President Nury Martinez, does not have a council vote during its weekly meetings. She previously oversaw all policy, programmatic and operational issues of the office, with a specific emphasis on homelessness and housing policy.
Katona spent the past 12 years as a senior deputy to Ridley-Thomas when he served as a County Supervisor. She is currently working with a staff of 23 persons to keep the 10th District running.
“Our team didn’t really miss a beat,” said Katona. “They’ve focused on constituent services and are really dedicated to their jobs. I’m proud of their commitment.”
The City council adopted several motions at the request of the district and some of the top issues staff tackled are highlighted in its Winter Report (https://tinyurl.com/2p8ve9pw). It includes the SOLA Bioscience program, focusing on long term workforce development opportunities by training teachers and providing curriculum in local schools; and the efforts to attract a developer to Marlton Square who will create and support well paying jobs.
“District 10 is the urban core of Los Angeles, really the epicenter of the homeless crisis,” she said, noting that staff are also working with several organizations, including Legal Aid, to stem the tide of homlessness at the source, connect individuals to services and help residents before they fall through the cracks. “It’s about preventing them from getting evicted in the first place.”
Partners and staff have visited local barber shops, nail salons and the like to equip businesses with knowledge about safetynet services so they can better support their clients.
Additionally LA Works has trained volunteers to make connections with and provide emotional support to individuals who have just been housed, so they don’t feel isolated during their transition from the streets.
“They become confidants and support them,” Katona said of the volunteers helping the homeless. “They require comprehensive support to stay housed.”
Katona also wanted to address Leimert Park, one of the district’s nationally known assets. Degnan Boulevard had been closed on Sundays to support vendors who operated a marketplace on weekends.
A petition was recently circulated in the community which stated that the local businesses, which have suffered during the pandemic, were also going to face the possible closure of a nearby parking lot, further discouraging customers to visit the area.
“Leimert Park is a center for culture and commerce,” she said, explaining that staff are always trying to accommodate a diverse number of needs in the area, but recently the street marketplace had been operating without a license.
Additionally, due to incremental improvements being made to sidewalks and streets, the district is no longer able to have vendors operate on Degnan Boulevard.
“The idea is not to enclose the entire parking lot, but one-third of it, still leaving over 100 spots for patrons and reopening Degnan for parking,” Katona said. “There’s been a lot of confusion about that.”
Katona was to be relieved of her duties, however, when the City Council voted unanimously for former City Councilman Herb Wesson to replace Ridley-Thomas as the district’s representative.
“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 Council President Nury Martinez. “Mr. Wesson cares deeply about the communities he represents and knows the district better than anyone. The constituents of Council District 10 need a voting member who understands their community to represent them within Council Chambers.”
At a preliminary injunction hearing today, the city will need to show why it believes it is legal for Wesson to fill the seat and that there will be harm if the Southern Christian Leadership Confernce (SCLC) restraining order isn’t released.
Martinez met with residents and leaders before announcing her appointment, many of whom suggested Wesson to the appointment. She chose to appoint a voting member instead of calling for a special election, due to the potential Charter-crisis that could ensue if residents were to elect another councilmember to the seat and Ridley-Thomas is cleared of all charges before his term is completed in 2024.
Wesson represented the 10th District as Councilmember from 2005 until December, 2020.
According to the Los Angeles City Charter, pending trial, the Council may suspend any elected officer who has been charged with a criminal felony. The Council may fill a vacancy by appointing a person to hold the office for the portion of the unexpired term.
If confirmed, Wesson would hold the office of Council District 10 through Dec. 31, or until Ridley-Thomas is acquitted or the charges against him are dropped.
A Martinez news release cites a precedent: In 2019, following the resignation of Councilmember Mitch Englander, then-Council President Wesson appointed former Councilmember Greig Smith to serve as a voting member on the Council.
“Herb has and will continue to be a champion for the district he represents and the city that he loves.” Los Angeles County Democratic Party Chair Mark J. Gonzalez said in a statement. “With so many issues facing Los Angeles right now, thanks to President Martinez, the residents of CD10 will have the representation and a voice in City Hall they deserve until Councilmember Ridley-Thomas is cleared of his charges.
“There is no one more passionate and focused about the work than Former Assembly Speaker and LA Council President Herb Wesson and I am looking forward to working with him on behalf of his district and the City of Los Angeles,” the statement read.
The City Council suspended Ridley-Thomas pursuant to City Charter section 211, which states: “Pending trial, the Council may suspend any elected officer, and the appointing power may suspend any appointed officer, against whom felony criminal proceedings, or criminal misdemeanor proceedings related to a violation of official duties,” and “The temporary vacancy shall be filled in accordance with the Charter.”
Nevertheless, Pastor William Smart, President and CEO of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference – Southern California (SCLC) is a staunch supporter of the former councilman. Smart filed a lawsuit in February aimed at reinstating Ridley-Thomas to the council seat.
The lawsuit alleges the suspension “contravenes the bedrock presumption of innocence guaranteed under California law.”
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mary Strobel granted a temporary restraining order which prevented former Councilman Herb Wesson from being seated as District 10 councilman, although Wesson was sworn in on Feb. 22.
Lastly, in light of Ridley-Thomas’ conspiracy allegations, Los Angeles County has selected a nationally-renowned law firm, Covington & Burling, to conduct an independent audit and investigation of the county’s contracting policies and processes as well as major service contracts.
The independent investigation was ordered by the Board of Supervisors to ensure the county’s contracting policies and processes follow best practices and are most effectively serving the public’s interest. The investigation will begin immediately.
The Board directed that the investigation review “all county service contracts in all supervisorial districts with a significant cumulative monetary value approved by this Board between the years 2008-2020, or such other timeframe that is consistent with best auditing practices” including “the County service contracts referenced in the Federal allegations, and the associated county processes and policies in place.”