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A state official cleared the way for a group of South Los Angeles community leaders to sue over the selection of Herb Wesson as a temporary member of the Los Angeles City Council, throwing the future of his City Hall appointment into question.
Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta issued an opinion granting the request from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California to challenge Wesson's appointment in court. The civil rights group has argued that Wesson is ineligible to serve as an interim replacement for Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who is fighting federal corruption charges and was suspended from his post last year.
In Wednesday's opinion, Bonta said the SCLC of Southern California had raised substantive questions about whether the council's selection of Wesson violated the City Charter, the city's governing document. The city's term limit law may prevent Wesson from holding that office again, he said.
"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 states. "Further, the public interest will be served by allowing the proposed [legal challenge] to proceed."
John Sweeney, an attorney for the SCLC of Southern California, said he and his clients will decide in the next day whether to file for a temporary restraining order seeking Wesson's removal. Residents of the 10th District did not vote for Wesson, who was appointed to the post during a "secretive process," he said.
"We believe that he is illegally holding office," Sweeney said. "And that's why we wanted to keep the status quo and put no one in there until Mark Ridley-Thomas' criminal trial came around."
Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for City Atty. Mike Feuer, declined to comment on the state's decision. Wesson, for his part, said in a statement that he would "continue to work in the best interest of the people" until the legal matter is resolved.
Wesson, who previously served on the council from 2005 to 2020, said he had been enjoying retirement before being contacted about a return to City Hall. "When there was a need for someone to temporarily step in and keep the district running, there was no way I could say no to my neighbors and friends that I love so much," he said.
Under the City Charter, council members are limited to three four-year terms. However, they can also serve a portion of another official's unexpired term if that official steps down ahead of schedule.
The drama surrounding the 10th Council District, which stretches from Koreatown to the Crenshaw Corridor in South Los Angeles, has been playing out in fits and starts over the past nine months. Ridley-Thomas, elected in 2020, was indicted on bribery, conspiracy and fraud charges in October, in a case stemming from his time serving on the five-member county Board of Supervisors.
In their indictment, prosecutors 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. Ridley-Thomas pleaded not guilty and has vowed to fight the charges.
The council suspended him from his post soon afterward, tapping one of his high-level aides to serve as the district's unelected caretaker. That move spurred complaints from residents who said they no longer had a voting representative to weigh in on budget decisions and other issues.
In February, the council voted to approve Wesson as the district's voting representative until Dec. 31. Under that plan, Wesson is to step down earlier if the charges against Ridley-Thomas are dropped or if a jury finds him not guilty.
Supporters of that move described Wesson as a sensible choice, saying he was already familiar with the district and would be barred from running again, preventing the council from handpicking a successor who could run for election as an incumbent in 2024.
The SCLC of Southern California disagreed, joining forces with several voters in the district, filing a lawsuit to keep Wesson from taking office.
A Superior Court judge initially sided with them, issuing a temporary restraining order blocking Wesson from participating in council business. At the time, she said the plaintiffs had a sufficient likelihood of prevailing with their argument that Wesson is barred under term limits from returning.
The judge also questioned whether the City Charter permits an interim council appointment that lasts only 10 months.
Weeks later, that same judge dissolved her order, concluding that the case could not proceed until the plaintiffs had obtained permission from Bonta's office to pursue a "quo warranto" action — 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.
Wesson returned to the council in March and began casting votes. He fired Ridley-Thomas' two top deputies, one of whom had spent several months as the district's nonvoting caretaker. He hired Heather Hutt, who ran unsuccessfully for state Assembly last year, as his chief of staff.
Hutt lives in the district and would be eligible for an interim appointment herself.
Meanwhile, the SCLC of Southern California filed its application with Bonta to pursue its challenge in court.
Wednesday's action gives fresh momentum to that effort. In his decision, Bonta said the legal questions surrounding Wesson's appointment are a matter of public importance that would "benefit from judicial review."
Asked about Bonta's decision, Council President Nury Martinez said she is "determined" to give the district representation. Martinez, who spearheaded the move to make Wesson a temporary councilman, defended the council's decision, saying residents in the district had "overwhelmingly suggested" him for the interim post.
"The residents of the 10th Council District wanted a trusted voice on this council, and their choice was Herb Wesson," she said in a statement.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.