Oscar de la Torre

A judge has agreed with a majority of Santa Monica councilmembers that current Councilman Oscar de la Torre is conflicted over the City’s defense of the California Voting Rights Act lawsuit filed by his wife and the Pico Neighborhood Association.

Council made the decision to exclude de la Torre in January of 2021 by a 4-2-1 vote.

At that time, the majority of the council, including Mayor Sue Himmelrich, Mayor Pro Tem Kristin McCowan, Gleam Davis and retired councilman Kevin McKeown, argued de la Torre has a Common Law conflict of interest that disqualifies him from being involved in any closed session or confidential conversation concerning the City of Santa Monica’s defense of the suit due to his active participation in the case as part of the Plaintiff’s team. They also questioned a potential fiscal conflict over de la Torre’s connection to Plaintiff attorney Kevin Shenkman, the council majority said de la Torre’s marriage to CVRA Plaintiff Maria Loya.

According to the City, de la Torre is also disqualified from voting on any decisions relating to the Pico Neighborhood Association and Maria Loya v. City of Santa Monica lawsuit. In January, de la Torre asserted that he should not be barred from closed session meetings relating to the lawsuit because he has no ability to gain anything financially from the case and the FPPC said de la Torre was not subject to a financial conflict argument, although the organization did not rule on the Common Law concern at that time citing a lack of jurisdiction.

Councilmembers de la Torre and Christine Parra were the only no-votes in January. Councilman Phil Brock abstained after he voiced displeasure with the tone of the conversation.

In response to the Council’s decision, de la Torre filed a lawsuit against the city over the action. City Hall filed a motion known as a “demurrer” that asks for the case to be dismissed and the judge issued a ruling Friday endorsing the City’s decision.

“To Summarize, the Court agrees with Defendant’s arguments that: 1) the decision whether to disqualify Plaintiff ‘was a determination properly made by the City Council in the first instance, subject to potential court review’; and 2) the decision made by the Council – that Plaintiff had a disqualifying conflict of interest – was correct, and Plaintiff was properly excluded from participating in meetings in which the CVRA litigation was discussed.

Therefore, there is no ‘actual controversy’ remaining for judicial determination, and the demurrer to cause of action 1 must be sustained,” said the ruling.

The Friday ruling centered on the Common Law conflict.

The demurrer process allows the Plaintiffs to amend and refile the argument which could allow the case to be rehashed several times before it becomes final. The court gave de la Torre 20 days to amend his complaint.

The night before the ruling, de la Torre had asked the council to voluntarily reconsider its decision. According to Interim City Attorney George Cardona, the rules governing City Council meetings require a councilmember that loses a vote to wait a year before asking to reopen the discussion. Should a request be made, the Mayor could allow an exception to the rules, any individual councilperson can appeal the Mayor’s decision and that decision can be overruled by a supermajority of five votes.

On Thursday, Mayor Sue Himmelrich rejected de la Torre’s request for the exemption, de la Torre appealed that decision and only Councilmembers Phil Brock and Christine Parra backed the appeal. Gleam Davis, Kristin McCowan and newly appointed Councilwoman Lana Negrete supported the Mayor’s ruling.

editor@smdp.com