LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles City Hall has felt under siege the last few years.
Three current or former City Council members have been indicted or pleaded guilty to corruption charges. Former lawyers at the city attorney’s office are facing prison time in a legal scandal. The former head of the Department of Water and Power is serving time for bribery. And Mayor Eric Garcetti has not left office for a post in India because of allegations that the mayor’s office covered up sexual harassment by a top aide.
Yet another scandal burst into public view over the weekend when the release of a secret audio recording revealed a closed-door meeting in which the City Council president, two of her colleagues and the county’s top labor official discussed race and power in coarse and at times racist terms behind closed doors.
Facing backlash, Nury Martinez apologized and stepped down Monday as council president, though she did not resign from the council. The remarks, she said, were made during a heated conversations last year about redrawing the boundaries of the 15 council districts.
But the move did little to calm the furor, as Garcetti and U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla — Martinez’s onetime political ally — and a host of other politicians and groups called on her to leave the council entirely. They also urged the other politicians in the conversation, Councilmembers Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo, whose term is set to expire in December, to step down.
The turmoil comes at a moment of imminent change, with voters set to usher in a new mayor, city attorney and city controller and several new members of the City Council in the Nov. 8 election.
Progressives are hoping for victories that boost their agendas, while longtime City Hall incumbents are portraying their challengers as either ill-equipped or too extreme to lead the city.
Voters will also choose between Rep. Karen Bass and developer Rick Caruso to tackle the homelessness crisis and lead a city that former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has described in recent interviews as rudderless.
To be sure, City Hall has also faced internal tumult in recent decades. Mayor James Hahn’s final months in office in the early 2000s were overshadowed by a federal probe into possible corruption in city contracting.
But the rancor, the multiple indictments and the mayor’s painfully slow transition — the U.S. Senate has yet to vote whether to confirm him as ambassador to India — have City Hall watchers wringing their hands about a metropolis being cast adrift.
Calls for changes to the city’s governance structure reverberated across Los Angeles on Monday.
“This is a good time to take stock of how you run the city,” said Fernando Guerra, a professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University.
Guerra suggested reexamining the relationships between the mayor, City Council, controller and city attorney — “the informal governance and how we make all of each other accountable.”
He also suggested that City Council follow the lead of the state Legislature and leave the entire process of reshaping the city’s council districts to an independent commission.
Weighing in on the turmoil at L.A. City Hall, West Hollywood Councilmember Lindsey Horvath released a statement calling for “drastic political action to solve the upheaval of trusted, transparent governance.”
Horvath, a candidate for county supervisor, recommended expanding the number of seats on the L.A. City Council to have more representation and to turn to publicly financed elections.
Former L.A. City Councilmember Jan Perry said she listened to leaked audio and was struck by the lack of discussion among the group about what would benefit all communities.
Perry was left bruised by the 2012 City Council redistricting round when her South L.A. district was largely severed from downtown, then a growing economic engine. The fights over those redistricting maps led to deep rifts on the council.
Perry, who is running for the congressional seat being vacated by Bass, urged voters to “dig down deep” ahead of the Nov. 8 election.
“I’ve been involved in this work for 30 years and I’ve never seen it this bad,” Perry said of the turmoil at City Hall.
“I think Chicago and Philadelphia and other cities that have histories of scandal are feeling getting pretty good about now,” said Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at Cal State Los Angeles. “They’re thinking, ‘It’s L.A. for once, not us. "
With this latest scandal, “it’s a pretty damning picture,” he said.
The redistricting process typically involves open discussions of race, but the divisive and racist comments heard in the audio shocked individuals and groups across the city. De León and Cedillo have apologized and Cedillo said he didn’t make racist statements or mock his colleagues.
Los Angeles has experienced dramatic demographic changes in the nearly half century since Tom Bradley, a Black man, was elected mayor.
Even then, Blacks made up less than 15% of the city’s population. By last year, their portion of the population had declined to just under 8%, while Latinos had expanded to more than 48%. Also growing have been the number of Asian Americans, who now make up more than 11% of the city of L.A.
Whites hold six of the positions on the 15-member council, while they now make up only 28% of L.A.'s population.
Black officials hold three seats, the equivalent of 20% of those on the council, despite their lower population in the city. Latinos, with nearly half of the city’s residents, hold less than 27% of the council seats.
Tensions have arisen because representation on the City Council is viewed by the participants as a “zero-sum game,” said Manuel Pastor, director of USC’s Equity Research Institute. Pastor said that with 15 seats on the council, fights over redistricting become emotionally charged when one community feels it is losing a seat as another feels it is gaining ground.
On Monday, the future makeup and leadership of the City Council remained a question mark after calls for the three City Council members to resign and what could be a pitched battle to replace Martinez as head of the body.
Los Angeles is on track to lose at least four council members — Cedillo, Paul Koretz, Mike Bonin and Joe Buscaino. A fifth, Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, is in a tough reelection fight. A sixth, indicted Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, has been suspended and has been replaced temporarily by legislative aide Heather Hutt.
If Martinez and De León resign, O’Farrell is defeated and Ridley-Thomas is convicted, the council could see eight of its seats, a majority, turn over.
Those watching the events unfold this week said the setback is particularly painful because leaders and activists at the neighborhood level had been making progress to bring people of many races together to fight for common causes, like the construction of more housing and increases in the city’s minimum wage.
Pastor, an expert on social and political movements, urged Angelenos not to forget the many times they have transcended racial and other divides to make historic changes.
He pointed to Bradley’s election in 1973 — powered by a multi-racial coalition — and to the victory in 2005 of Villaraigosa, the first Latino mayor in well over a century, along with the successful fights for better wages and to improve the transit system.
“So you have a storied history of collaboration, much of which has been eclipsed in the last day and a half,” Pastor said. “But that other history also happened here. So, in the City of Angels, the question is: Are we going to draw on our better angels from that history? Or are we going to draw on our worst moments?”
(Times staff writer David Zahniser contributed to this report.)