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Council on Thursday Could Take Step Towards Settling Voting Rights Case
 

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By Jorge Casuso

July 21, 2021 -- The City Council on Thursday could take a significant step toward ending the voting rights lawsuit against the City by allowing Councilmember Oscar de la Torre to participate in determining its fate.

De la Torre, whose wife Maria Loya is the lead plaintiff, placed an item on the special meeting agenda that would reverse the Council's January decision disqualifying him from "participating in or attempting to influence, discussions or decisions relating to this litigation."

Settling the case -- which de la Torre said has likely cost taxpayers more than $15 million -- would save the cash-strapped City money and transfer the decision making from the courts to Santa Monica's elected representatives.

"Either we have a judge tell us what to do or we come up with a reasonable plan that's good for the City," said de la Torre, who was president of the Pico Neighborhoood Association (PNA), a plaintiff in the case.

"Five of the seven current Councilmembers never voted to fight this case," he said. "My hope is that people on the Council now are more inclined to be on the right side of history rather than voting to protect their privilege and power."

De la Torre would need three additional votes to be included in future discussions that could lead to a settlement of the five-year-old case currently before the California Supreme Court.

Councilmembers Phil Brock and Christine Parra -- who were swept into office on the same "Change" slate as de la Torre -- are expected to support his motion on Thursday.

Both have publicly opposed the City's defense of its at large election system, which would likely be replaced by districts if the plaintiffs prevail in court.

Former Councilmember Kevin McKeown, who voted to fight the case and made the motion to exclude de la Torre, abruptly retired from the Council last month and was replaced by Lana Negrete.

As is common with Councilmember items, City staff did not issue a report on Thursday's agenda item.

The two attachments accompanying the item are a report laying out de la Torre's legal position and a letter from the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) advising the City that he has no financial conflict of interest.

The FPPC letter does not address the "common law conflict" that was the basis for barring de la Torre, but the unattributed report argues that such a conflict does not exist.

"The Voting Rights Case seeks representation not just for Councilmember de la Torre, but for the entire Latino-concentrated neighborhood in which he resides with thousands of others.

"Therefore, the Voting Rights Case does not involve a “personal” interest for Councilmember de la Torre; it involves an interest common to a large group of Santa Monicans whom de la Torre was elected to represent," the report reads.

In March, de la Torre filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court seeking an injunction prohibiting the City from disqualifying him from Council sessions, but he said the case could drag on.

"I think it's wrong for the City Council to exclude one of its members from an issue I campaigned on," de la Torre said. "There's no hidden agenda.

"I'm hoping to correct this wrong," he said. "I'm not asking for any special privileges. I want fairness."

The Court is scheduled to hear a motion filed by the City on Friday to dismiss the case.


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