L.A. council fails to pick a replacement for Ridley-Thomas, exposing a divide at City Hall

Los Angeles, CA - August 30: Heather Hutt, left, whose appointment as an interim council member for the 10th District, failed to receive the 10 votes required for a public hearing at City Hall on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2022 in Los Angeles, CA. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Five L.A. City Council members blocked a vote on a proposal to name Heather Hutt, above, as the interim representative of the 10th District, sending it to a committee for review. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)
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The drama just won't stop in Los Angeles' 10th City Council District.

Ten months after Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas was indicted on federal corruption charges, the City Council remains at odds over what should happen to his district — who should represent it, and how that person should be selected.

Council President Nury Martinez had been hoping on Tuesday to persuade her colleagues to appoint Heather Hutt, who has been the district's caretaker since mid-July, when a judge sidelined the council's previous interim pick, former Councilman Herb Wesson.

But five of Martinez's colleagues blocked that proposal, using a procedural move to keep it from being considered on the council floor — and sending it to a committee instead.

Martinez's request to take up Hutt's nomination needed 10 votes but stalled out at nine. Its failure leaves the 10th, which stretches from Koreatown to Leimert Park in South L.A., without a voting representative for the time being.

Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez, who opposed a vote on Hutt, said the council moved too swiftly last time it tried to fill the seat — selecting Wesson, only to have two judges conclude he is ineligible because of term limits. Councilman Bob Blumenfield had similar concerns, saying he only learned that Hutt was in consideration on Thursday.

"What gives me great discomfort," he said, "is the speed at which we are doing this."

Rodriguez and Blumenfield were joined by council members Mike Bonin, Marqueece Harris-Dawson and Nithya Raman in blocking the nomination from consideration. The proposal was referred back to the council's rules committee, which Martinez heads.

Martinez quickly scheduled a vote on Hutt's nomination for Wednesday, keeping it on a fast track. She also apologized to Hutt, saying during the council meeting she would keep fighting to put her in the seat.

"I am sorry that a few did not have the courage to have this conversation, and deal with the merits of this Black woman that's here today," Martinez said, referring to Hutt.

After the vote, Hutt issued a statement saying she remains committed to the district. "Although I am disappointed with today’s decision, I will continue to fight to provide the resources and services our constituents need," she said.

Residents of the 10th have been without a voting representative off and on since last fall, when Ridley-Thomas was indicted on charges of bribery, conspiracy and fraud in a case that centers on allegations that he steered public money to USC in exchange for a job and full scholarship for his son. He has pleaded not guilty.

Supporters of Heather Hutt at Tuesday's Los Angeles City Council meeting.
Supporters of Heather Hutt at Tuesday's Los Angeles City Council meeting. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

The council suspended Ridley-Thomas on an 11-3 vote. Martinez picked Karly Katona, Ridley-Thomas' then-chief of staff, to serve as a nonvoting caretaker.

Residents of the district protested that they had been disenfranchised by that move, since Katona did not have the power to cast votes.

In February, the council selected Wesson to serve in the interim post. But that effort was challenged in court by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and district residents who aligned with Ridley-Thomas. Two judges sided with those plaintiffs and Wesson resigned last week.

Since Martinez announced the nomination of Hutt, the political debate over the district's future has expanded, with an increasing number of candidates, elected officials and advocacy groups from across the city wading into the fray.

Labor organizer Hugo Soto-Martinez, now running to unseat Councilman Mitch O'Farrell in the Nov. 8 election, called for the council to take more input on the appointment. O'Farrell signed on to the proposal to appoint Hutt last week.

Councilwoman-elect Eunisses Hernandez, who defeated Councilman Gil Cedillo in June but won't be seated until December, also weighed in, saying the choice of an interim council member should not be kept "in the hands of a few."

Cedillo, in turn, said the district deserves to have a voting representative right away. "Democracy delayed is democracy denied," he said.

For some, the handling of the temporary vacancy in the 10th District has become a referendum on Martinez's tenure as leader of the council.

Rob Quan, a frequent Martinez critic, accused her of selecting Hutt as part of a larger strategy to remain council president. Several of Martinez's allies on the council will be stepping down at the end of the year, when a vote on the presidency will be held.

"She cares about one vote," said Quan, who is part of the group Unrig LA. "And that's in January 2023, when they vote for council president."

Suspended Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, shown in 2020.
Suspended Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, shown in 2020. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

Martinez called that assertion "insulting," saying she acted because the 10th District needs a voting representative. If critics want new leadership, "then line up the votes and take me out anytime you want," she said.

"I'm not afraid of that," Martinez added.

Dallas Fowler, who lives in the Mid-City section of the 10th District, praised Martinez for moving to fill the seat. Appearing before the council, she berated council members who blocked the vote on Hutt, calling it "an insult to every woman in this district."

"For over 200 days, this district has gone without a voting member on this council, and you would never let that happen in North Hollywood or Sherman Oaks," said Fowler, wearing a shirt with the message "Black Women Are Watching."

On Tuesday, Martinez and Councilman Paul Krekorian introduced a motion asking for a report on the process of calling a special election if Ridley-Thomas' seat becomes permanently vacant — a scenario that would play out if he is convicted by a jury.

Bonin, Harris-Dawson and Rodriguez have offered a separate plan, which would instruct city officials to come back in 60 days with eligibility criteria for an interim appointment. That timetable, if followed, would force the council to make a decision a few weeks before Ridley-Thomas' trial, which is set for mid-November.

Bonin said Monday that his search process wouldn't need to last a full two months. Meanwhile, even some who opposed the vote on Hutt said they don't want to wait a 60 days.

Harry McElroy, who lives in Leimert Park, said council members should conduct two rounds of hearings on the search for a replacement, allowing multiple candidates to seek the post.

"I don't think it should need to last more than a week or two," he said. "It shouldn't take that long if we do it properly."

Bev Rowe, who lives in the West Adams section of Ridley-Thomas' district, said residents should be given the opportunity to vet Hutt, who served as an aide to Vice President Kamala Harris when Harris was in the U.S. Senate.

"We know nothing about Heather Hutt," she said.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.