A judge has agreed to hear arguments between the City and Councilmember Oscar de la Torre over whether de la Torre has a common law conflict of interest with the City’s defense of the California Voting Rights Act lawsuit.
In January, City Council voted to bar de la Torre from participating in any closed session or confidential conversation concerning the City of Santa Monica’s defense of the suit. Four council members voted in favor of the exclusion, two voted against it and one council member abstained.
The California Voting Rights Act lawsuit was filed in 2016 by de la Torre’s wife Maria Loya and the Pico Neighborhood Association, which de la Torre is the former Co-Chair of. The plaintiffs in the CVRA suit seek a move to a district voting system and allege that the City’s at-large voting system discriminates against Latino voters. The case is currently awaiting oral argument before the California Supreme Court.
De la Torre does not believe he has a common law conflict of interest and filed a lawsuit seeking to prove this so that he may participate in discussions.
“The Council majority wants to marginalize one of its members and really the only thing I seek is a change to the election system that will support our residents, that will be more democratic, you know where every neighborhood is represented, and where it’s cheaper to run for office,” said de la Torre.
On July 23, Judge Richard L. Fruin issued a tentative ruling that de la Torre did have a conflict of interest, but on Oct. 5 reversed course and denied the City’s request to have the case dismissed, thus allowing it to proceed to a trial hearing.
According to Interim City Attorney Joe Lawrence, a status conference is set for Oct 26, which will provide more information on the timeline of the case.
The City maintains that de la Torre has a conflict of interest due to his close personal relationships with both plaintiffs and his involvement on behalf of the plaintiffs in many aspects of the CVRA action.
“Such close personal relationships pose the concern the common-law conflicts doctrine is intended to address—that a public official may be tempted to act to benefit those with whom he has the close personal relationships rather than with the disinterested skill, zeal, and diligence required of a public official,” said Lawrence.
De la Torre argues that his interest in the outcome of the CVRA case does not differ from that of any other Santa Monica voter and that he therefore does not have a disqualifying conflict of interest.
De la Torre said that were he able to participate in CVRA discussions he would urge the City to stop fighting the case and settle.
“It puzzles me why the City Council majority feels that it’s appropriate to continue to waste taxpayers dollars on this legal adventure,” said de la Torre. “They should have resolved this case a long time ago but anyway we find ourselves here because people in power did not want to change the election system.”
The City has hired an outside attorney to assist with the conflict of interest case. Carol Silberberg, an attorney from Berry Silberberg Stokes PC, will serve on the City’s legal team as the case proceeds to a trial hearing in the Los Angeles Superior Court.
According to City Public Information Officer Constance Farrell, it is a normal process for the City to seek external legal support given that it is involved in several complex legal matters at this time.