Ridley-Thomas’ pay suspension being challenged

Staff and Wire Reports

LOS ANGELES — Suspended City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas’ two closest allies on the council are looking out for him.

Councilmen Curren Price and Marqueece Harris-Dawson are questioning whether City Controller Ron Galperin had the legal authority to cut Ridley-Thomas’ pay and benefits last October after 10th District Councilman Ridley-Thomas was suspended from the council after being indicted on federal corruption charges stemming from when Ridley-Thomas was on the county Board of Supervisors.

On Aug. 9, Price filed a motion, seconded by Harris-Dawson, asking City Attorney Mike Feuer to report to the council within 10 days whether Galperin could legally suspend Ridley-Thomas’ pay.

Claiming that he “could not use city money to pay the salary of an elected official facing federal bribery and fraud charges who is now legally unable to do his job,” Galperin announced he was suspending Ridley-Thomas’ pay shortly after the City Council voted to suspend him last Oct. 13.

Price’s motion claims that Ridley-Thomas is suffering an “extreme personal financial burden … especially if ultimately the litigation is resolved with exoneration.”

“We need quick action by the city attorney to opine as to the legality of the controller’s action to withhold salary payments,” the motion stated.

Ridley-Thomas sued the city and Galperin last month, seeking a ruling to strike down the decision as unlawful, along with attorneys’ fees.

Chelsea Lucktenberg, Galperin’s acting director of communications, declined comment, citing matters related to pending litigation.

Ridley-Thomas’ lawyer, Crystal Nix-Hines, said the councilman welcomes the motion.

“Although we are prepared to demonstrate in court that the controller had no legal basis for his actions, it would be far better for the council to rectify this abuse of authority and immediately restore Councilmember Ridley-Thomas’s compensation,” Nix-Hines said in a statement.

Last week, council members Paul Krekorian and Gil Cedillo signed onto a motion asking the city attorney to report back within 30 days on the controller’s legal authority on suspending the pay of a city employee, along with the council’s options if it disagrees with a decision made by the controller.

Krekorian’s motion claims that if such an ability is within the controller’s purview, “there is real risk that a future controller might stop paying public employees” if the employee doesn’t conform to the controller’s subjective view of what their “duty” should be.

A spokesperson for Galperin said at the time that the city charter allows the controller to stop salary payments when a public employee is “not devoting their time to their duties,” according to Krekorian’s motion.

While Ridley-Thomas is suspended, District 10 does not currently have a vote on the council.

Herb Wesson, who was appointed to act as Ridley-Thomas’ temporary replacement, was blocked from representing the district after Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mary Strobel issued a temporary restraining order on July 19 preventing Wesson from performing any council functions.

But Strobel removed herself from the case Aug. 3.

Her clerk issued a minute order in which the judge explained her decision to remove herself from the case.

“The court has received city’s opposition to the order to show cause re: preliminary injunction (and) for the first time in this litigation, the city argues that the legislative history of proposed changes to the city charter in 1999 are relevant to the issues in the preliminary injunction,” the minute order said.

“Because the judge worked as a staff member for the elected Charter Reform Commission, one of the two commissions recommending those changes in 1999, the court recuses itself in the interests of justice.”

The case was reassigned to Judge Mitchell Beckloff. The next hearing in the case is scheduled Aug. 17.

Wesson, who represented the 10th District on the City Council from 2005 to 2020 when he was termed out of office, was unanimously approved as a temporary replacement for Ridley-Thomas on Feb. 22, more than four months after Ridley-Thomas was suspended. According to the appointment, Wesson was supposed to hold the position through Dec. 31 unless Ridley-Thomas was acquitted or the charges against him were dropped.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California challenged the council’s appointment of Wesson and on Feb. 24 Judge Strobel issued an order preventing Wesson from serving. She later vacated the order and declined to issue a preliminary injunction, saying that procedurally, the SCLC needed to obtain permission from the state attorney general to proceed with its legal challenge.

As a result, Wesson began serving on the council in mid-March. In June, however, Attorney General Rob Bonta cleared the way for the SCLC to proceed with its challenge, opining that there were legitimate questions about whether Wesson’s appointment was legal.

The SCLC contends that since Wesson was “termed out” of office in 2020 he could not legally serve again.

Attorneys for the city argued against the restraining order, saying in part that there was no urgency for such a ruling — as noted by the SCLC’s decision to wait roughly a month after the attorney general’s ruling to even seek an injunction. City attorneys also claimed that the restraining order would do nothing to address the SCLC’s primary allegation that the City Council had no authority to suspend Ridley-Thomas.

Ridley-Thomas and Marilyn Flynn, the former dean of the USC School of Social Work, are slated to go on trial Nov. 15 in federal court.

A 20-count indictment alleges a secret deal in which Ridley-Thomas — as a member of the county Board of Supervisors — agreed to steer county money to the university in return for admitting his son Sebastian Ridley-Thomas into graduate school with a full-tuition scholarship and a paid professorship.

Both defendants have strongly denied any wrongdoing and promised that evidence will clear their names.