This past November, more than 80 million Americans — from a wide range of ideological, socio-economic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds — turned out to support a presidential candidate who we hope will pull us back from the brink of disaster created by the previous administration.
Four years of deliberate and aggressive erosion of norms, rhetorical assaults on institutions, and a lack of respect for the rule of law threatened to destroy the delicate foundation upon which our government is built.
Our institutions must be able to endure these challenges. This is not a partisan issue and it is as true in Santa Monica as it is in Sacramento or Washington, D. C.
That’s why newly-elected Councilmember Oscar de la Torre’s conduct at the last City Council meeting was deeply troubling. Despite a clear conflict of interest, Councilmember de la Torre insisted on being allowed to participate in closed sessions involving strategy in a lawsuit filed against the City by his wife, Maria Loya, and the neighborhood organization for which he served as president for many years.
It is increasingly apparent that Councilmember de la Torre has very close ties — both personally and professionally — with Kevin Shenkman, the Malibu lawyer representing the plaintiffs against the City. The conflict was evident and yet de la Torre insisted that he should be permitted to attend these closed-session deliberations concerning the City’s strategy in this litigation.
Councilmember de la Torre’s position — namely that he supports dividing the city into electoral districts each with its own representative on the City Council – is well-known and he is not precluded in any way from discussing the merits of his position publicly. But last Tuesday, Councilmember de la Torre routinely conflated his right to discuss voting rights policy with his purported right to participate in strategy meetings concerning a pending lawsuit filed by his wife against the City. These two issues are not the same: one is a form of legitimate politics while the other is a breach of the public trust.
When the City Attorney offered his legal opinion on the matter, Councilmember de la Torre engaged in wildly inappropriate attacks on staff’s credibility.
It is no secret that Councilmember de la Torre believes that creating Council districts within Santa Monica would be in the best interests of representative democracy in Santa Monica. We welcome the public debate on whether such a change would actually create a more equitable and representative system. But that was not the issue last Tuesday when de la Torre argued that because he believes he is right as a matter of public policy, he should be allowed to ignore the legal conflict of interest requirements which arise because he and his wife chose litigation to pursue that policy.
De la Torre’s strategy is clear in retrospect. He sought to divert attention from his obvious conflict of interest which requires that he recuse himself from participation in City Council deliberations about his wife’s lawsuit against the City by attacking anyone, including his fellow Councilmembers, with a different point of view on this issue, as racist or prejudiced.
Conflict of interest principles exist to protect the public against corruption and to maintain the public trust. De la Torre’s attempt to erode that protection is dangerous. We, as a community, absolutely need to address the history — and present existence — of systemic racism in our city. But no one person can fairly adjudicate these complex matters. Finding a more just, inclusive, and anti-racist path forward requires bringing more voices in — not weaponizing the language of the anti-racist movement to shield oneself from the need to adhere to longstanding principles of good governance. Doing so hurts the dialogue we need to have.
Councilmember de la Torre’s behavior — and continued bad-faith framing of the issue — has much larger and more insidious implications for our local political discourse. Santa Monicans for Integrity in Government came together because we do not want to see our city’s politics fall victim to the same cynicism that has plagued our national politics – the costs from which it will likely take years to recover.
In healthy democratic politics, the ends do not justify the means.
We believe that Councilmember de la Torre, like the rest of his colleagues, must follow the rule of law and live up to the norms of a civil democratic society. We believe that is the expectation of most Santa Monica residents, whether or not they voted for Councilmember de la Torre. Santa Monicans want elected officials to lead our community with integrity, honesty, and a healthy respect for civil, good faith discourse.
Santa Monicans for Integrity in Government
The organizing committee for Santa Monicans for Integrity in Government includes: Judy Abdo, Jason Islas, Chris Harding, Tom Larmore, Debbie Mulvaney, and Joe Pertel