Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León stripped of City Council committee posts over racist leak

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 17: Acting council President Mitch O'Farrell holds a news conference to provide an update on the City Council at Los Angeles City Hall on Monday, Oct. 17, 2022 in Los Angeles, CA. City Councilman Mitch O'Farrell District 13. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Acting L.A. City Council President Mitch O'Farrell announces that he has stripped Councilmembers Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo of committee assignments. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles City Council struggled on Monday to find a way out of the crisis that has engulfed City Hall over the last week, with two embattled councilmembers losing their committee assignments and a potentially divisive vote looming over the council's top leadership post.

Acting L.A. City Council President Mitch O'Farrell announced early in the day that he had removed Councilmembers Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo from an array of council committee assignments — the latest in a series of attempts to pressure the two men to step down, following reports that they participated in a secretly recorded conversation where racist and disparaging remarks were made.

The two councilmembers were pulled from committees dealing with real estate development, housing, homelessness and other issues. Protesters have settled in near De León's Eagle Rock home, setting up tents and saying they don't intend to leave until he resigns.

By the end of the afternoon, the council was on the brink of a leadership fight, with at least two members competing to replace Nury Martinez, who resigned from the presidency last week and then stepped down from the council entirely.

Councilmembers Paul Krekorian and Curren Price have publicly expressed interest in the post, which was held by Martinez for nearly three years. However, it was unclear whether either had the eight votes to prevail at Tuesday's meeting, when a leadership vote is scheduled.

Councilmember Bob Blumenfield, asked Monday evening whether the council would select a new president on Tuesday, responded: "I don't know the answer to that. I really don't. I think we should, but it's unclear."

Complicating matters further, Krekorian tested positive for the coronavirus over the weekend, raising the prospect that a continued outbreak among councilmembers could force the body to meet several more days via Zoom.

All those developments served as the backdrop for a crisis triggered by The Times' reporting on racist comments heard in a recorded conversation among Cedillo, De León, Martinez and Ron Herrera, president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

O'Farrell has said in recent days that he is determined to begin the work of restoring stability to City Hall, allowing residents to vent their anger but also ensuring the council holds meetings and fulfills its public duties. At the same time, he acknowledged that Cedillo and De León have not been persuaded by calls from numerous political leaders, including President Biden, to step down.

O'Farrell said he does not see how either councilmember could return to the council floor "with any level of credibility."

"The only recourse is resignation or recall," he said.

De León and Cedillo have given no indication in recent days that they intend to resign in the aftermath of The Times reporting on the leaked audio, which was recorded during a meeting at the L.A. County Federation of Labor headquarters in October 2021.

In that recording, Martinez made racist remarks about the young Black son of Councilmember Mike Bonin, who is white. She also used a profanity while discussing Dist. Atty. George Gascón, saying that he is "with the Blacks."

Neither Cedillo nor De León responded to requests for comment Monday. Last week, Cedillo apologized for his involvement in the recorded conversation, saying he should have intervened. De León has expressed regrets about his actions, saying he appeared to "condone and even contribute to certain insensitive comments made about a colleague and his family."

De León had spent the last year presiding over the council's Homelessness and Poverty Committee, which has been grappling with the city's response to the homelessness crisis, and serving on the powerful Budget and Finance Committee.

Cedillo, whose term ends in December, has been chair of the Housing Committee and served on the committee that reviews major development projects.

For now, Cedillo and De León will have seats on the five-member Board of Referred Powers, a committee that rarely meets, in order to ensure the council is in compliance with the City Charter, which requires that every councilmember sit on at least one committee, an O'Farrell spokesman said.

Monday's announcement comes at an extraordinarily turbulent time for the council, with one seat vacant and two others effectively dormant. De León and Cedillo — who, like their colleagues, earn more than $229,000 annually — have avoided council and committee meetings in recent days.

With three members effectively gone, the basic task of ensuring the council has a quorum — the 10 members needed to hold a meeting — has become considerably more difficult.

Despite testing positive for the coronavirus, Krekorian said he is still planning to attend Tuesday's meeting, since it will held via Zoom. He said Monday he is experiencing only cold-like symptoms.

Krekorian, who represents part of the San Fernando Valley, learned of his coronavirus status on Sunday, shortly after meeting privately with Price, Blumenfield and Councilmember Monica Rodriguez at an outdoor table at the Front Yard, a restaurant in Studio City. Blumenfield said the group discussed the presidency as part of a larger conversation about moving the city forward.

"We're in crisis, and that's what we should be talking about," he said. "But we also have to figure out the practicality of running the council."

Krekorian remains interested in the presidency, citing his work helping the city recover from two major financial crises — one caused by the Great Recession, the other triggered by the pandemic. The council, he said, needs someone who can push for reforms that will rebuild public trust.

"I am prepared to do that job if the members want me to serve in that position," he said. "But I'm also prepared to serve in any other way that I can to advance this reform agenda and to begin the healing process that our city so desperately needs right now."

Rodriguez, who represents the northeast Valley, said she told Krekorian at Sunday's meeting that she favors Price, who just won reelection to a third and final term. Price, who is Black, represents the council district with the largest population of Latinos in the city and has shown he can build coalitions, Rodriguez said.

"He is someone that has helped to bridge a divide in his own district," she said. "I think given the moment that we're in, I believe those are skill sets that are highly valued."

The presidency vote comes at an awkward time. As many as five new council members could be seated in December, depending on the outcome of the Nov. 8 election. Those new arrivals may have a sharply different idea of who should lead the body.

Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who represents part of South Los Angeles, said he is "100% behind" Krekorian, describing him as someone who has deftly worked with colleagues who have differences of opinion. But Harris-Dawson also called for a delay in the presidency vote, saying no decision should be made until councilmembers have the ability to cast their votes in person.

Harris-Dawson acknowledged that a new crop of councilmembers will take office at the end of the year. And he stopped short of committing to keeping Krekorian beyond January, after those new members have been sworn in.

"I think three months, definitely," he said. "And then beyond that, I think we have to sort of take it as it comes."

Asked about the presidency, Price issued a statement saying he will do what he can to "help unite, heal and bring positive change that lifts people up and leaves no one behind.”

Tuesday's meeting will also allow the council to begin exploring a number of reform measures, including the first step toward asking voters to expand the size of the 15-member council.

Still, other efforts to recover from the crisis remain stalled.

O'Farrell said he believes a special election should be called for Martinez's council seat as soon as possible. That contest, he said, should be accompanied by a special election for De León's seat as well. But an election in De León's Eastside district cannot happen until he steps down.

In Eagle Rock, protesters continued their push to oust De León, chanting slogans near his home and setting up camp for a lengthy stay. A sign near a group of tents featured the message “Just 25 Black people yelling,” a reference to comments De León made in the leaked conversation.

Sheila Bates, an organizer for Black Lives Matter, said the protests that have broken out over the last week have shown “a complete solidarity between Black and brown folks” in the city.

Bates said she will stay put until De León has resigned.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.