A few months after being barred from a closed session City Council meeting for an alleged conflict of interest, Councilmember Oscar de la Torre is suing the City of Santa Monica to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

The lawsuit, filed earlier this month in California Superior Court, details the events of a Council meeting held on January 26 along with de la Torre’s history as an advocate for district-based elections before asking for an injunction prohibiting the City of Santa Monica from preventing de la Torre’s participation in all City Council decisions, deliberations and discussions, unless a court determines he does indeed have a conflict of interest in certain matters before Council.

“The City has received the lawsuit filed by Councilmember de la Torre challenging the Council’s determination,” City spokesperson Constance Farrell said in a statement that detailed de la Torre’s involvement with the Pico Neighborhood Association and Maria Loya v. City of Santa Monica case, which is currently pending a decision by the California Supreme Court.

“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,” Farrell added, mentioning 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.

January’s 4-2 vote, which resulted after more than an hour-and-a-half of contentious discussion and fiery debate, also disqualified de la Torre from voting on any decisions relating to the Pico Neighborhood Association and Maria Loya v. City of Santa Monica case as well, which he said conflicts with the wishes of the voters who elected him into office.

“The City Council majority voted to keep me from engaging on an issue that I was elected to address,” de la Torre said. “I don’t have a conflict, I have a mandate.”

Councilmembers who voted to bar de la Torre from closed sessions related to the CVRA case disagreed, stating de la Torre has been so heavily involved in the litigation that it’s impossible for him to not be conflicted.

“It’s like a football game. If I am planning, if I am going into the huddle, I am not inviting the coach from the other team into a strategy session about the play I’m going to call,” Mayor Sue Himmelrich said.

“I think the point you just made is a key one… If this was a matter of policy discussion, there’s no question that the duly-elected council member Oscar de la Torre should be part of that policy discussion,” Councilmember Kevin McKeown said. “But this is, not at this point, a policy discussion. I honestly wish it were; I wish that five years ago — instead of suing the city — people who are interested in district elections had begun the process of public discussion because, by now, we could have had a ballot measure and voted on it. And the people, the city would have decided what they want to do. Instead, the plaintiffs chose litigation (and) Oscar was indeed part of that team.”

“And like Mayor Himmelrich, I had the experience of being deposed in this case with Oscar in the room — and the only other people in the room were attorneys for their side or the city’s side. So, it’s very clear that Oscar took a role in the initiation and strategizing of this litigation. And for that reason, the common law conflict is quite obvious to me,” McKeown added as he stated he would certainly step down if his wife were suing the city and proposed that de la Torre voluntarily recuse himself from the matters.

De la Torre disagreed back in January, stating he would do so if the Fair Political Practices Commission or courts ruled he should. This week, he expressed similar sentiments when he cited a FPPC letter sent to Interim City Attorney George Cardona that states de la Torre does not have a disqualifying conflict due to finances because he is not financially interested in any future settlement resulting in a monetary payment that would benefit the Pico Neighborhood Association.

“How is it that the City Council majority who have voted to waste public funds to protect their own power, privilege and stipends get to claim that I have a conflict? Isn’t it more of a conflict for those Councilmembers who oppose district-based elections being that their positions are more secured through the illegal at large election scheme?” de la Torre asked this week. “I will respect the mandate of a more neutral court order that isn’t tainted…”

Farrell said, “The City believes its determination was correct and will be responding to the lawsuit in court.”