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The Future of LA City Council

A roundup of a tumultuous week: we published leaked audio of LA’s top leaders being racist, and also interviewed Councilmember Nithya Raman about reforming City Council.

a visualized audio clip where gil cedillo is captioned saying: "Oaxacan Korean. Not even like Kevin, little ones."
Image: Knock LA

On Sunday, Knock LA published leaked audio recordings from a meeting that took place October 18, 2021, at the LA County Federation of Labor with three LA City Council members present. It exploded across the news nationally and even internationally. Councilmembers Nury Martinez, Kevin de León, Gil Cedillo, and LA Labor Federation President Ron Herrera were recorded making hateful comments about Oaxacans, Armenians, Jews, and Black people, as well as mocking gay people. Martinez joked about beating Councilmember Mike Bonin’s child. 

Between bigoted comments, the four officials also strategized about carving up districts to consolidate their power, and discussed their intention to ensure Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell be reelected over opponent Hugo Soto-Martinez in CD 13. They also talked about limiting the power of renters by scattering them across districts. And throughout the litany of topics the group discussed, they showed utter disdain for their constituents. 

Councilmember Nithya Raman tells Knock LA that the recordings caused her to reflect on the last 20 months she’s been on City Council. “I’m still processing how the attitudes expressed in that recording may have impacted policymaking. It throws every policy discussion that we’ve had, about which there’s been a back and forth, into a new light for me.”

Much has been written about the group’s recorded discussion of Latino vs. Black representation in districts. LA Times’ Fidel Martinez observed that the claim officials were actually fighting for Latino representation falls apart under scrutiny. 

Councilmember Raman says that the leaked audio does not show public officials having a good-faith conversation about representation, but that it instead was “about individuals seeking to consolidate their own electoral strength.”

While statements from local officials and politicians came in, President Biden asked for Martinez’s resignation on Tuesday. 

After initially stepping down only from her position as council president, and later announcing a leave of absence, Martinez finally resigned from her seat on Wednesday with a statement that lacked any acknowledgement of the corruption and racism demonstrated in the audio. Her vacancy will likely trigger a special election next year.

Ron Herrera of the LA County Federation of Labor resigned from his position as president of the powerful organization. In a statement released on Tuesday, the LA Fed declared that the leaked tape was part of a security breach of multiple offices at their organization. Prior to that, on Sunday, lawyers for the LA Fed sent an email threatening the LA Times in an apparent attempt to prevent them from publishing information revealed in the audio.

While the audio trickled out, the reaction at large was one of unanimous outrage. Bonin and his husband Sean Arian issued a statement on Sunday condemning Martinez’s comments and calling for de León, Herrera, and Martinez to resign from their posts. 

Councilmember-elect Eunisses Hernandez, CD 13 candidate Hugo Soto-Martinez, and state Assemblymember Isaac Bryan — progressives of varying degrees who were discussed in the leaked audio — attended Tuesday’s City Council meeting and sat in the front row. In an emotional speech, Bonin said he hoped his son would never have to read about the contents of the audio. “Man, I know the fire you feel when someone tries to destroy Black boy joy. Man, it’s a rage.” Bonin further spoke about being raised at a time when gay men were not allowed to have a family or kids. 

“It’s not my place to forgive the slurs and the treatment of the Oaxacan community or the AAPI community or the Jewish community,” Bonin said. “It’s not my place to forgive the coded comments against the gay community or forgive the overwhelming, casual, joyful, anti-Black racism of the entire conversation. It’s not my place to forgive the coordinated effort to disenfranchise all these communities and all these people.”

Councilmember O’Farrell presided over the Tuesday session as City Council president pro tem. Facing protesters demanding the resignations of De León and Cedillo, and flanked by police officers with riot gear, he threatened to clear the hall of protesters in order to continue the meeting. 

On the bulletin board in City Council, there was a resolution posted. It was introduced by Bonin and Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson and called for the resignation of the councilmembers on the recording. 

Councilmember O’Farrell announced at the Tuesday meeting that the election of a new City Council president would occur on October 18. At a press conference later that day, O’Farrell said that he’d spoken to Councilmember Cedillo at length about resigning, and that he believes Cedillo is coming closer to that decision. He added that he was not able to speak to de León but expects two more resignations. 

Councilmembers O’Farrell, Paul Krekorian, Paul Koretz, Curren Price, and Bob Blumenfield also held a press conference. Krekorian downplayed Cedillo’s role on the tapes, arguing that he had only stood by while other councilmembers made racist comments. However, the audio reveals Cedillo offering his own disparaging remarks about people from Oaxaca and Armenia. 

On Wednesday, Councilmember O’Farrell announced a motion to initiate the process of placing a charter reform measure on the 2024 ballot to expand the number of City Council seats to reflect population growth. Since 1924, City Council has only had 15 seats, even as the city’s population has grown to nearly 4 million. Each seat now represents around 265,000 people. Historically, local elections have low turnout. For example, O’Farrell won his last election, in 2017, with about 17,000 votes 

The motion was not submitted for a vote, as protesters have so far succeeded in blocking city business from continuing until all three councilmembers have resigned. After speaking with protesters, Councilmember Harris-Dawson left the meeting, breaking quorum, and the meeting was adjourned. Harris-Dawson later said that this was unintentional, and that O’Farrell ended the meeting before Harris-Dawson intended to return. 

California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced Wednesday that he is launching an independent investigation into LA’s redistricting process. 

Councilmember Harris-Dawson told Knock LA that the meeting would be investigated as a potential Brown Act violation. The Brown Act requires transparency, including a public hearing for any and all city business. 

Friday’s meeting has been canceled by O’Farrell, with Bonin, O’Farrell, and Councilmember-elect Eunisses Hernandez issuing statements that council business should not proceed until Cedillo and de León resign. 

Though they have not yet been voted on, there are also motions drafted to remove de León, and Cedillo, from all leadership positions on their respective committees.  

Raman, who was quick to demand the resignations of the officials recorded on the tape, also drafted a motion to form an ad hoc committee on city governance reform. The committee would explore reforming municipal lobbying rules, establishing an independent redistricting committee, and removing councilmembers’ direct power over land use decisions in their districts. 

In the motion, Raman writes that the recordings “have provided the public a window into a redistricting process stained by self-interested political gerrymandering and backroom deals.”

Raman told Knock LA you shouldn’t need to have certain assets in your district in order to be a successful councilmember. “One of the reasons why I feel like people may want those assets in the district is to exert control over them in terms of land use decision making, and then potentially fund campaign donations.” 

Assets that council districts fight over in the redistricting process include valuable institutions that bring money to districts — airports, universities, infrastructure, developments — and key voting blocs that could change a councilmember’s voting electorate. 

Raman says the council needs to create a system that doesn’t make it a “competition” for assets across the city between council districts, and that development projects are currently structured to benefit only one district. “If you negotiate with a developer, what are they going to give you in return for that construction… I think a clear set of rules for people that want to build in the city would reduce opportunities for corruption and extraction.”

Councilmember Krekorian agrees, and tells Knock LA that the council’s discretion over land use “is at the heart of a lot of the risk of corruption,” and that reform will help it expedite the development of more housing. 

Raman also stresses the importance of lobbying reform, and particularly identifying lobbyists who present at meetings. “It’s really important to identify who’s a paid lobbyist, and who’s a genuine member of that community who feels a certain way about that project.”

It’s unclear at this point what impact the recordings will have on future policy, and what the future of City Council looks like. We asked Krekorian if the council would revisit policy decisions made while Martinez, Cedillo, and de León were on council, and he said that that council is “responding to the moment right now… but that may be something we want to look at, particularly around redistricting, but perhaps around other issues as well.”

The recordings hit hard because they laid bare what many Angelenos already assumed about elected officials in LA — that many of them are driven by empty greed, and more interested in extracting resources from the people they represent than in assisting them in their daily lives. The incendiary and racist comments from these powerful political actors clearly reflect their worldviews, which then influence their policies. Those policies must be examined closely for years to come.