Lawsuit filed in LA County Court by Santa Monica City Councilmember Oscar de la Torre
By Sam Catanzaro
A Councilmember is suing Santa Monica over a conflict of interest decision relating to a voting rights case brought against the City by his wife.
On March 3, Santa Monica City Councilmember Oscar de la Torre filed a lawsuit against the City of Santa Monica in Los Angeles County Superior Court. The lawsuit seeks an injunction against the City of barring him from taking part in discussion and voting on action relating to a voting rights case brought against the City by his wife. The lawsuit also seeks to stop the City Council from meeting in closed session without de la Torre.
The case, filed by plaintiffs Pico Neighborhood Association, Maria Loya and Advocates for Malibu Public Schools, alleges that Santa Monica’s at-large election system dilutes Latino voting power in violation of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) and discriminates against Latino voters in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the California Constitution. De la Torre’s wife is plaintiff Maria Loya and until November 2020 he served on the Pico Neighborhood Association’s board.
In a 2019 ruling the Los Angeles Superior Court Judge ordered that all future elections for seats on the Santa Monica City Council be based on a seven-district map drawn by an expert for the plaintiffs, including a 30 percent Latino district. The City then appealed this decision.
In July 2020, the California 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled in favor of the city saying that Latinos, who account for 14 percent of Santa Monica’s electorate, lack the numbers to win an election in the 30 percent Latino district ordered by the county.
After the Appeals Court rejected a petition for a hearing, the plaintiffs filed their case with the California Supreme Court. On October 21 the Supreme Court took up the case, depublishing the Appellate Court ruling. The court has granted the City an extension until March 22 to file its answer brief on the appeal’s merits.
On January 26, 2021, Santa Monica City Council voted 4-2 with one abstention to exclude de la Torre from participation in any closed session or confidential conversation concerning the CRVA lawsuit and voting on any decisions relating to the case.
De la Torre’s March 3 lawsuit points out that the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) has ruled that he has no financial conflict of interest in the case. City Attorney George Cardona however, cited de la Torre’s Common Law conflict of interest when recommending Council vote to exclude him. As reported by the Santa Monica Lookout, de la Torre’s lawsuit does not address the Common Law conflict of interest.
De la Torre did not immediately respond to a request for a copy of the lawsuit. The Lookout, however, includes quotes in their coverage. In the case, de la Torre’s attorney Wilfredo Trivino-Perez argues that the plaintiff’s stake in the outcome of the case is no different than that of any other Santa Monica resident. This is a point de la Torre brought up at the January 26 meeting, arguing that his stake in the case is just an issue he cares about.
“I care deeply about voting rights of minorities in Santa Monica and California more generally. Just like Sue [Himmelrich], everyone knows that you care deeply about affordable housing. Just like Kevin [McKeown], everyone knows that you care about environmental issues. My wife Maria [Loya] and the entire Pico Neighborhood Association board also care deeply about minority voting rights in Santa Monica,” de la Torre said.
Councilmember Gleam Davis, who voted to exclude de la Torre at the Jan. 26 meeting, addressed this during the debate.
“This is not about Oscar’s opinions. This is not about Coucilmember de la Torre’s bias,” Davis said. “It has to do with the very clear fact that Mr. de la Torre was in fact part of the group, head of the group, that decided to sue the City. That he is married to the individually named plaintiff in the lawsuit, and that those facts in and of themselves create a legal, a Common Law, of legal conflict of interest.”
According to de la Torre’s March 3 lawsuit, the City lacks the jurisdiction to bar him from these decisions without his consent or a judicial determination of a conflict of interest. Therefore, the case argues the Santa Monica residents de la Torre was elected to represent are impacted.
“The residents of Santa Monica he was elected to represent, have suffered and will continue to suffer irreparable injury,” Trivino-Perez wrote in the case per the Lookout.
The City released the following statement when reached for comment:
On January 26, 2021, in a 4-2 vote (Councilmember Phil Brock abstained), the Santa Monica City Council made the determination that Councilmember Oscar de la Torre has a common law conflict of interest that requires his disqualification from discussions and decisions regarding the case of Pico Neighborhood Association and Maria Loya v. City of Santa Monica. The conflict is the result of Councilmember de la Torre’s personal relationships with the two plaintiffs who brought the litigation against the City. 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 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 City has received the lawsuit filed by Councilmember de la Torre challenging the Council’s determination. The City believes its determination was correct and will be responding to the lawsuit in court.