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Council Votes to Exclude de la Torre from Closed Sessions on Voting Rights Case

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By Jorge Casuso

January 26, 2021 -- In one of the most combative public meetings in recent Santa Monica history, the City Council on Tuesday determined Oscar de la Torre has a conflict of interest and must be excluded from closed door sessions pertaining to the voting rights lawsuit against the City.

De la Torre is expected to file a lawsuit in Superior Court challenging the Council's 4 to 2 vote that would offer a legal ruling on whether there is a common law conflict of interest that bars him from participating.

The vote was taken after the newly elected Council member refused to recuse himself from privileged discussions and decisions pertaining to the lawsuit filed by his wife, Maria Loya, and the Pico Neighborhood Association (PNA) he served as a Board member.

The Council majority noted the de la Torre has been deeply involved in the litigation that is now before the California Supreme Court, playing a lead role when it was initiated nearly five years ago and sitting in on depositions.

"It's like a fotball game," said Mayor Sue Himmelrich, who voted to exclude de la Torre. "I am not inviting the coach from the other team into a strategy session about the play I'm going to call."

"Oscar was part of the team," said Councilmember Kevin McKeown, who made the motion to determine de la Torre was conflicted and should be excluded. "It's clear Oscar took a role" in the litigation.

"This is not about any of our opinions or our biases or our stakes in our Council seats," Councilmember Gleam Davis said. "It goes directly to the integrity of the City."

The meeting was contentious from the start, with de la Torre questioning Interim City Attorney George Cardona and other Council members jumping into what often resembled heated exchanges in a court of law.

"Did you appear as an attorney at the trial?" de la Torre asked.

Cordona responded that he "sat through" parts of the trail.

"Who directed you to produce the staff report for (this) meeting?"

"Objection. Privileged," Himmelrich, who has been an attorney for 36 years, jumped in.

"Are you aware of any authority that allows the City to exclude a Council member from discussions?"

Cardona pointed to the City Charter saying the Council has the authority to determine a conflict of interest "to ensure it is not acting in violation of the law."

The exchanges prompted Councilmember Phil Brock, who abstained from the vote, to weigh in.

"I'm frustrated by the tone of this meeting and that we're going so long on this obstructive issue," he said, adding later, "This is an afternoon of land mines."

De la Torre's potential conflict centers not on any financial interest he or his wife may have in the case -- it is generally agreed they have none -- but on a potential "common law conflict."

The City Attorney believes de la Torrre is conflicted and points to a 2009 opinion by then California Attorney General Jerry Brown concerning a vote by a city redevelopment agency member whose son was seeking a property improvement loan for his building.

In Brown's opinion, "the common law prohibition extends to noneconomic interests."

De la Torre obatined his own legal opinion from The Ambrose Group, a Los Angeles-based law group that advised that "he should not recuse himself."

Attorney Daniel Ambrose argues that "it is debatable whether this common law doctrine is still viable in California," since the State legislature has passed subsequent laws addressing the issues covered by the prohibition.

The City and de la Torre have both asked the State's Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) to weigh in, but their advise is restricted to financial conflicts.

The City has also asked the California Attorney General to weigh in but been advised "that its statutory authority does not permit it to provide guidance," officials said.

The Council decided that it would require a Superior Court decision to settle the issue and that the swiftest way to achieve that is for de la Torre to file a lawsuit.

De la Torre concluded the discussion with a speech denouncing the City Council for spending "tens of millions of dollars" defending their seats, which are jeopardized by the district-based elections the plaintiffs are seeking.

He noted that major Civil Rights organizations, legislators, minority caucasus, the State Attorney General and the author of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) had "all implored the California Supreme Court to take the case and find in favor of the plaintiffs.

"I want to be involved to stop the bloodletting," de la Torre said.

The taxpayer's money, he said, "was used to fight for white supremacy. That is what it did and exactly what it is doing."

Interim City Attorney Lane Dilg, who said she has worked as a Civil Rights attorney, took offense.

"Some comments made tonight were outrageous," she said after the Council voted. "The continued attacks on public servants does not help move the work forward.

"This is outrageous, and I clearly want to state that on the record."

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