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Can LA Councilmembers Be Removed? What Could Happen Amid Fallout Over Racist And Derogatory Comments

Men and women sit with their backs to camera in the foreground, in a ornate room with marble arches on the sides. In front of them is the a horseshoe of wooden desks, where LA city council members would normally sit.
The council chamber of L.A's City Council
(Phoenix Tso
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The Los Angeles City Council is in disarray as the fallout continues from audio leaked over the weekend that contains multiple councilmembers making racist and derogatory remarks.

Councilmembers Nury Martinez, Kevin de León, and Gil Cedillo and L.A. County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera were recorded discussing how to handle redistricting after the census. That conversation — which was recorded a year ago but became public Sunday — includes derogatory and racist statements about another councilmember’s very young Black son, Indigenous Oaxacans and Black political power in L.A. Other remarks were homophobic.

Martinez stepped down from her position as City Council president on Monday, Oct. 10, but calls are growingfor her and the other councilmembers to fully resign their seats.

What Happens To The Council Presidency Now?

L.A. City Council presidents are usually chosen at the first regular meeting of a new council term. The role is responsible for operating as an acting mayor when the mayor is out of the state. They handle council assignments, preside over meetings and perform court-like duties such as ruling motions as out of order.

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The L.A. City Charter Section 243 dictates what happens when members vacate this role.

The president pro tempore is like a temporary president who’s selected by the council to preside over the group. It’s supposed to be a limited run, but the charter allows for this person to take charge “in case of vacancy in the office.”

L.A.’s president pro tempore is Mitch O'Farrell, who’s facing a tight race for reelection in CD 13.

The council would normally elect a replacement every two years, at that first day, making the next time slotted Dec. 12 — even if a president is removed. Regardless of his reelection outcome, O’Farrell would oversee things until the City Council votes on replacement in two months.

At least, that’s what the rules say. Councilmember-elect Eunisses Hernandez, who defeated Cedillo in June, told the L.A. Times that she wants the council to place “an intermediate caretaker” as president through year’s end, suggesting Paul Krekorian. So, there could be some leeway for the council to make other decisions.

Can A City Councilmember Be Removed?

Yes, but not by the City Council in most cases. Barring any legal charges, members have to be removed by voters.

In Martinez’s case, she’s only stepped down from the council presidency. She’s still the councilmember for CD 6, as are the other members who took part in that meeting.

“Our law basically says that this woman, who may have said ugly stuff, is accountable to her voters,” said Frank Zerunyan, a professor at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy who currently serves as mayor of Rolling Hills Estates. “She can voluntarily resign… but she should not be in a position to be able to be removed by her peers.”

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City Council members hold a publicly elected office, so only voters can remove them through the recall process. In order to do that, at least 15% of registered voters in a member’s district would have to sign a recall petition to trigger an election, according to the city charter.

What If They Step Down?

Another possible scenario is what happens when a city councilmember vacates their seat by resigning early.

If a vacancy happens, the council has the authority to appoint an eligible person into that seat to serve for the remainder of the council’s term. (Voters saw this play out with Herb Wesson's short-lived appointment to CD 10 after Ridley-Thomas was suspended following his federal indictment.)

Martinez was elected by her peers in late 2019 and took the position that following January. Her term would have ended in 2024, so it’s likely a special election will be called. It should be noted that her election was historic: Martinez was the first Latina to hold that position.

“They can let it sit until the next election cycle, [but] I doubt that they would do that,” Zerunyan said. “It's too important to have someone represent the district.”

How Do I Know Who Represents Me?

Meeting of LA City Council with members sitting in a horseshoe configuration. On the screen is a list of names showing who voted yes.
The L.A. City Council voted on new council district maps on Dec. 7, 2021
Screenshot of LA City Council)

Remember, this whole shocking discussion was centered around how to draw new boundaries for the City Council districts. Those were ultimately approved unanimously in December 2021, a couple of months after the conversation took place.

If you live in the city of Los Angeles and aren't sure which councilmember represents you, explore this map or check your Los Angeles city address. Each of the 15 councilmembers represents roughly 260,000 city residents — far more than elected officials in other big cities like New York and Chicago.

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Corrected October 10, 2022 at 5:40 PM PDT
A previous version of the story misstated Frank Zerunyan's position. He is in fact the current mayor of Rolling Hill Estates. LAist regrets the error.