City stops paying Wesson's salary after judge bars him from performing council duties

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LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 03: Councilman Herb Wesson greets staff at a free drive-thru COVID-19 test site he helped in in collaboration with Kheir Clinic, where participants are not required proof of health insurance or citizenship, at Councilman Herb Wesson District Office on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020 in Los Angeles, CA. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Herb Wesson, shown in 2020, has been temporarily barred from performing L.A. City Council duties as the appointed replacement for suspended Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin has cut off Councilman Herb Wesson's pay and benefits after a judge temporarily barred Wesson from performing the duties of his office.

"Because there is a legal order barring Mr. Wesson from performing the functions of a council member, the controller is suspending his salary payments, effective July 19," Galperin spokesperson Chelsea Lucktenberg said Thursday.

On Wednesday, City Council President Nury Martinez appointed Wesson's chief of staff, Heather Hutt, as caretaker to handle matters in the 10th District, Martinez's spokeswoman said. Hutt will represent the district but cannot vote on items before the council.

Wesson, who had already served three terms on the council, was appointed earlier this year to temporarily replace Mark Ridley-Thomas, who was suspended after being indicted on corruption charges by federal prosecutors last fall.

Ridley-Thomas has denied the charges and plans to fight them in court this fall. His allies sued earlier this year to prevent the council from appointing Wesson and requested that he be removed from the post pending the ruling from the judge.

In a ruling Tuesday, L.A. Superior Court Judge Mary H. Strobel said Wesson is “enjoined from performing any functions of a council member.“

Wesson did not respond to requests for comment.

The plaintiffs in the case, which include the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California and several residents of the council district, were pleased with Strobel’s decision.

“The court correctly recognized that the City Charter rules mean something. The City Council should never have appointed a termed out council member to represent District 10,” said Crystal Nix-Hines, an attorney from Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan who is working on the case.

In a similar move, Galperin suspended the pay and benefits for Councilman Jose Huizar after he was indicted on federal corruption charges in June 2020. If Strobel's directive is lifted and Wesson is reinstated, Galperin's office said he will revisit whether to start the pay and benefits again.

Earlier this year, Strobel had temporarily blocked Wesson’s appointment only to backtrack weeks later and say the case couldn’t proceed until the plaintiffs had obtained permission from state Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta to pursue a challenge to a public official’s eligibility to hold public office.

Such challenges cannot be filed by a private party without the attorney general’s consent.

Last month, Bonta’s office allowed the legal challenge of Wesson’s appointment to proceed.

“We conclude that substantial questions of law exist as to whether Wesson’s appointment to the Los Angeles City Council was lawful,” Bonta’s decision said. “Further, the public interest will be served by allowing the proposed [legal challenge] to proceed.”

Strobel said the plaintiffs, who include a group of voters in Ridley-Thomas’ district, have a sufficient likelihood of prevailing in their argument that Wesson is legally barred from returning to the council on an interim basis, since he has already served the maximum number of terms under the city’s term limit law.

The city and the plaintiffs will appear before Strobel again next month — on the same question.

Until then, Wesson is temporarily out of a job. In the immediate aftermath of Ridley-Thomas’ suspension, Martinez appointed his chief of staff, Karly Katona, as the caretaker for the district but that meant she wasn’t able to vote on items before the City Council.

Wesson later fired Katona when he assumed the post and replaced her with Hutt, who ran unsuccessfully last year for a seat in the state Assembly.

Now Hutt is Wesson's stand-in for the time being.

“While we are disappointed in Tuesday’s ruling, we are proud of the work we’ve done under the leadership of Councilmember Wesson," Hutt said in a statement Thursday. "The CD10 team will continue our work of serving the people of the 10th District."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.