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Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Times
Julia Wick, David Zahniser, Dakota Smith and Benjamin Oreskes

LA Mayor Bass’ emergency homelessness declaration is approved during heated City Council meeting

LOS ANGELES — After several hours of turmoil, the Los Angeles City Council approved Mayor Karen Bass’ declaration of a homelessness emergency, allowing the new mayor’s first major policy proposal to move forward.

With broad support from the council, the vote should have been a simple procedural step. But it was thrown into jeopardy by the ongoing tumult at City Hall, where the reappearance of embattled Council member Kevin de León midway through the meeting led to a long break in proceedings and uncertainty about whether the meeting would continue.

Bass could have seen her first major policy proposal delayed by a month if the council did not vote Tuesday.

After the council voted unanimously in favor of the declaration, the room exploded with anger as protesters realized de León had voted on the proposal from outside the room. Chants of “Shame” and “You lie!” reverberated through the chamber and council President Paul Krekorian struggled to regain control of the room.

De León was able to remain present while outside the chamber by leaving the floor but staying in a back corner room. Because the chamber’s voting software is set to automatically register each of the 15 lawmakers as a “yes” unless members deliberately press a button to vote “no,” council members can easily register “yes” votes while outside the room.

“He can’t face us! If he’s going to vote, he needs to stand right there,” protester Brett Sullivan yelled from the galley, holding a “Resign KDL” sign.

The upheaval took place on a critical day for City Hall. The council had a number of high-profile items on its agenda, including Bass’ declaration and the extension of a COVID-19 eviction moratorium through Jan. 13. It’s also the first time five new council members took their seats around the horseshoe, and their last meeting until mid-January.

De León showed up for Tuesday’s council meeting nearly two hours into the proceedings, prompting Krekorian to immediately call a recess.

Council members walked out of the chamber as competing groups of spectators screamed, with protesters angrily yelling for de León to leave and supporters of the council member chanting his name and “Sí, se puede.”

As de León entered the room, Council members Hugo Soto-Martinez and Eunisses Hernandez quickly headed for the exit and Krekorian called for a 10-minute recess as other members left the chamber.

With the council in recess, Krekorian and de León quietly conferred for more than 15 minutes with intermittent screams from protesters echoing through the room. Krekorian then exited the chamber after speaking to police and de León — who remained in his seat — began a lengthy conversation with staff members.

De León remained at his seat in the council chambers for nearly an hour and a half, occasionally conferring with staff members amid period outbursts from the thinning crowd.

No other council members were seated at the horseshoe during this time. Several were talking behind chambers, while at one point a few others walked out to the building’s Spring Street steps, where lunch was being served at a preplanned reception and a colorful banner listed each of the new council members’ names.

De León finally left the room a little after 1 p.m., sparking competing chants from the council member’s supporters (“Kevin!”) and detractors (“Fuera”).

Domina Hu, a Westchester resident in a black Wu Tang shirt who came to protest de León, blasted James Brown’s “The Payback” from a phone and began a celebratory dance in the center aisle.

Other council members filed back in, and the meeting soon reconvened without de León in the room. But he briefly reentered, at which point Soto-Martinez and Hernandez once again left the room. Soto-Martinez and Hernandez came back to their seats after de León left.

The council currently has one vacancy. Ten of the council’s 15 members must be in the room for the council to conduct business.

De León has faced widespread calls for his resignation as fallout from a racist leaked audio tape roiled the city. Hours after returning to council chambers Friday, he was involved in a fight with an activist during a Christmas tree lighting and toy giveaway in Lincoln Heights.

Some at Tuesday’s City Council meeting expressed support for the councilman and frustration at disruptions. Juan Jose Gutierrez, a business owner who lives in de Leon’s district, began shouting “don’t stop the meeting” as others in the council called on the councilman to resign.

“We’re sick of these professional agitators,” Gutierrez told the Los Angeles Times. Those angry at the councilman should go through “the process” of recalling de Leon, Gutierrez added.

Bass declared a state of emergency on homelessness after taking office Monday, a move that needs a City Council vote in order to go into effect. The declaration would allow her to spend money on services and facilities to assist L.A.'s unhoused without competitive bidding or council approval.

Escorted by several police officers, de León had entered City Hall around noon, coming in through a door off Temple Street.

“We have millions of folks who go to work every day with folks that they don’t like and they still get up every morning and go to work,” de León said, when asked about those who both oppose and support him. “We just got to get back to work.”

The council member also noted that he has the “largest homeless population in the country” in his district and referenced Bass’ emergency order.

“We have to get this emergency order done,” de León said.

Before de Leon’s arrival, dozens of police officers were positioned near and around the council chambers. One officer stood near the doorway to the chambers, a hard-foam projectile gun — a weapon that is more commonly used by the LAPD during large street protests — slung over his shoulder.

The already fraught tenor of council meetings grew far more volatile in October, following the release of an incendiary recording that captured de León, two former council members and a top labor leader in a raw conversation about the city’s redistricting process that included racist and derogatory comments about a host of groups.

Nury Martinez, who was then council president, said white council member Mike Bonin handled his young Black son as though he were an “accessory” and described the child as “parece changuito,” or “like a monkey.”

De León appeared to compare Bonin’s handling of his child to Martinez holding a Louis Vuitton handbag. He later said he was referring to Martinez’s “penchant for having luxury accessories.”

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