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The Ethics Deficit of Los Angeles City Hall 

LA CITY GOVERNMENT - Listening to the recording of ex-councilmember Nury Martinez:

a) use racist language to disparage a Black child of a fellow councilmember, b) belittle Koreans, c) denigrate White colleagues, d) speak with contempt for Jewish elected officials, e) belittle recent migrants from the Mexican state of Oaxaca and f) show disrespect the people of Los Angeles as if they were pawns in a game, offends the ears, hearts and minds of any and every person with an ounce of ethics. Yes, Ms. Martinez resigned, although without a clear apology for her remarks. I wonder what other conversations she may have had that were not recorded, where she may have disparaged people she worked with and who knows who else.  

But what of her cohort of listeners?  

Ron Herrera, president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, is not an elected official, but he is supposed to be a trusted stalwart of working people and certainly was a power broker in City Hall. He participated in this conversation, but he did not oppose Ms. Martinez as she was making her egregious comments. He, rightfully, resigned his position. 

Gil Cedillo lost the primary election, which may have saved him from the immediate humiliation of resignation. However, we now have knowledge of his disgraceful behavior which also lacked any verbal opposition to Ms. Martinez’ characterizations and descriptions.   

Kevin de León was also silent. He made no attempt of any kind to counter Ms. Martinez’ egregious characterizations. He refuses to resign under the guise of wanting to represent the constituents of his district. However, he did a poor job of representing these people and ethnic groups that Nury Martinez was denigrating. And he did a poor job of being an upstanding colleague to his fellow councilmembers.

Perhaps these powerful men did not have the guts to confront Ms. Martinez, president of City Council, on her lack of respect for others or they silently agreed with what she said. Either way, none of them challenged Ms. Martinez on her tone, language or attitudes. This shortfall of ethical behavior requires both Mr. Cedillo and Mr. de León to immediately resign from City Council. Los Angeles cannot have these attitudes in our midst. Nor can we have these weak, ethics-deprived people as members of our governing body.  

As the Founder of the Coalition of Homeowner Associations –Council District 5, I encourage, and in fact, demand along with so many others that Mr. Cedillo and Mr. de León remove themselves from the public stage of City Council and Los Angeles at-large, certainly in the name of better government, but also in the name of advancing kindness and respect for one’s fellow human beings. These are not the type of people we want in leadership positions for our City. 

Their disrespect is the tip of the spear of the ethics deficit in City Hall, which is a petri dish for the “what’s in it for me” approach of power-hungry councilmembers. We have City Hall departments and officials being investigated and indicted for wrong-doing and bad acts. Along with these individuals, Ms. Martinez, Mr. De León and Mr. Cedillo severely tainted the reputation of government in Los Angeles and personally caused hurt to others, specifically Mike Bonin and his family as well as members of the groups of people denigrated by Ms. Martinez.  By their silence, Mr. de León and Mr. Cedillo contributed to this denigration. Their collective disrespect for others has not been offset by their articulations of apologies. The knowing public sees through their phoniness. Corruption comes in many different flavors and Martinez, Cedillo and De León have contributed to the corruption of ethical behavior. The people of Los Angeles expect, deserve, and are entitled to have better leadership in our city government. Do we really want people of this caliber making policy that affects our lives?  

Looking to the future, we must ask, how do we influence change to prevent this unethical behavior from inhabiting our city government? It can only be by electing ethically sound people. But how do we, can we, measure the moral code of candidates for City office? Clearly what many politicians say before they are elected versus after they are elected might have a wide gap.   

Unfortunately, there is no blood test to measure a candidate’s integrity or mechanical test to measure a candidate’s moral compass. But there are a few bellwether indicators we can look at that should put our antenna on high alert: 

1) Campaign Endorsements. Candidates seek endorsements the way farmers reap their crops. From every source and from all corners of their acreage. 

When we look at who is endorsing a candidate, we can see a glimpse into how the candidate thinks about things aside from their website patter framed and written by campaign consultants. For example, we have a candidate for City Attorney, Faisal Gil, who is endorsed by Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who has made documented anti-Semitic statements. When confronted about this by the Coalition’s Election Committee, Mr. Gil did not reject Ms. Omar’s endorsement, he highlighted it. Is Mr. Gil anti-Semitic? If he associates and allows anti-Semites in his circle, then it could be argued that he is tolerant of antisemitism and does nothing to counter it. His silence is similar to Cedillo’s and de León’s silence as they listened to Nury Martinez. Is Mr. Gil a person we want as City Attorney? Someone who will accept or possibly purvey antisemitism in government? What’s next? More institutional racism? Government officials should have zero tolerance for antisemitism and what it can lead to.   

2) Public behavior. This is a mirror of how a candidate will act if elected. 

If a candidate is always professional in his/her public life and law abiding and philanthropic in his/her private life, we can have an indication of reasonable behavior. However, when we look at a candidate such as Kenneth Mejia, who is running for Controller, we can take cues from the fact that he groomed his followers to rabble rouse and stoked insurrection in City Hall. Is this a person we want as City Controller? Law-abiding behavior doesn’t mean non-progressive or resistance to change. It means that candidates who do not reject violence and disrespect probably will not make effective government officials and will more likely to take a path similar to Martinez, Cedillo and de León, one of disregard for others. 

3) Speaking out. Lies and false statements cannot be tolerated even when the victim is your political opponent. 

Name-calling pigeon-holes an opponent. This is a favorite tactic of school children in a clique that want to negatively tag a playmate and of campaign consultants. Campaign literature should be honest, and a candidate of moral character will not allow a campaign consultant to purvey lies. And when a false label is applied to an opponent, the ethical candidate will speak up and defend the victim of a false label. In the race for the council seat in Council District 5, this could have happened, but it didn’t. In an article in the Jewish Journal Sam Yebri was labeled a fascist by a supporter of Katy Young Yaroslavsky, Yebri’s opponent in the race. Mr. Yebri is clearly not any such thing and should not have been falsely labeled as such. Although others came to his defense, Ms. Yaroslavsky did not. At least, I had not seen or read any messages from her defending Mr. Yebri. But just to be sure, as I had in the past when I had questions or information for Katy, I called her on her cell number and left a voice mail asking her to correct me if I was wrong, whether in fact she did speak out against this false labeling. Unfortunately, Katy Young Yaroslavsky never called me back. Does this incident suggest that one candidate has a better ethics structure than another? No. But if a candidate says he/she will defend and care for those in need, then this candidate has obligated himself/herself to speaking up and opposing a lie. Ms. Yaroslavsky did not and given the ethics deficit in City Hall, she probably should have, as a way to illustrate her own code of ethics. But this didn’t happen. 

If a person wants to have a seat of power, he/she should start their own company and run their own show. If a person wants to give public service, then government may be a choice. The issue is that the voting public does not have the inside knowledge to really know the moral code of candidates. So we can only use the information publicly available to us. And we should. 

Voters need to be involved and garner every bit of information available. It’s the only way we can calculate some probability as to whether a candidate is on the ethical level we, the people of Los Angeles, want and deserve.

(Marcia Selz, Ph.D. is the Founder of the Coalition of Homeowner Associations-Council District 5)