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Councilmember Sues City Over Conflict of Interest Decision

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By Jorge Casuso

March 19, 2021 -- Councilmember Oscar de la Torre sued the City of Santa Monica this month for barring him from Council meetings, discussions or decisions pertaining to the voting rights case.

The lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court on March 3, seeks an injunction prohibiting the City from barring the newly elected Councilmember from participating after determining he has a conflict of interest.

It also asks the court to bar the Council majority from meeting in closed session without de la Torre present and to provide him with "the recording of the January 26, 2021 closed session council meeting from which he was excluded."

At that meeting, in a 4 to 2 vote the Council determined de la Torre has a common law conflict of interest in the voting rights case, in which his wife and the organization he headed are plaintiffs ("Council Votes to Exclude de la Torre from Closed Sessions on Voting Rights Case," January 26, 2021).

De la Torre's lawsuit notes that the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) advised the City that de la Torre has no financial conflict of interest.

The FPPC, however, did not address whether he has a common law conflict, as the City contends. De la Torre's lawsuit does not address the issue.

"Plaintiff's interest in the outcome of the Voting Rights Case is no different than any other Santa Monica voter," wrote de la Torre's attorney Wilfredo Trivino-Perez.

"Plaintiff wants Defendant’s city council elections to be brought into compliance with the CVRA," the lawsuit states, "because the current at-large elections are racially discriminatory and have resulted in the neglect of the Pico Neighborhood.

"And, Plaintiff wants Defendant to stop wasting huge sums of money on a divisive case to fight against the CVRA and minority voting rights."

The lawsuit argues that the City lacks the authority to exclude de la Torre without his consent or "a judicial determination that (he) has a conflict of interest."

Until such a decision is made, de la Torre "along with the residents of Santa Monica he was elected to represent, have suffered and will continue to suffer irreparable injury," Trivino-Perez wrote.

In a statement to the Lookout Friday, the City said de la Torre has "personal relationships" with the two plaintiffs in the voting rights lawsuit.

"Councilmember de la Torre is married to plaintiff Maria Loya and is a former co-chair, and was deposed in the litigation as the person most knowledgeable of, plaintiff Pico Neighborhood Association," the statement said.

"The Council made clear that Councilmember de la Torre is not precluded from participating in any Council discussions regarding the City’s election system, and that the conflict precludes him only from participating in discussions and decisions regarding the pending lawsuit."

The voting rights lawsuit is currently before the California Supreme Court after it granted the Latino plaintiffs' petition for review last October ("Supreme Court Takes Up Voting Rights Lawsuit," October 21, 2020).

If allowed to participate, de la Torre could provide a crucial vote in determining the fate of the litigation.

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