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De la Torre Free to Take Part in Voting Rights Lawsuit Decisions

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By Jorge Casuso

July 20, 2022 -- Councilmember Oscar de la Torre is free to participate in meetings, deliberations and decisions concerning the voting rights lawsuit his wife and the organization he headed filed against the City.

A settlement agreement signed by both parties on Monday effectively ends de la Torre's lawsuit challenging the City Council's decision in January 2021 to bar him due to a conflict of interest.

According to the settlement that went into effect Monday, "The City Council hereby withdraws and vacates its decision to exclude Councilmember de la Torre from closed sessions or any other participation in the Pico (Neighborhood Association) case.

"City shall not exclude, or seek to involuntarily exclude, Councilmember de la Torre from any discussions, decisions or other participation in the Pico case.

"Rather, the parties agree that, with respect to the Pico case, the decision to recuse on account of any potential conflict of interest shall be left to each Councilmember," the agreement states.

The agreement also "expressly limits each Councilmember's ability to have any discussions about confidential information from closed session without the City Attorney present," according to a statement attached to the settlement.

Under the settlement agreement, the City will pay de la Torre's attorney, Wilfredo Trivino-Perez, $92,500 to reimburse him for fees and costs in the case, which was filed on March 3, 2021.

The agreement also calls for the parties to issue a "neutral agreed upon statement... with no other public or media discussion by Councilmembers or City of the Conflict case or this Agreement."

After summarizing the terms, the statement reads:

"The agreement is not an admission or concession concerning the propriety of what has occurred by any of the parties, but it is a reflection of all parties' desire to put this matter to rest and prioritize use of public resources for things that directly benefit the community."

The settlement comes one month after Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Richard L. Fruin, Jr. issued a tentative ruling rejecting the City's contention that de la Torre's participation constituted a personal, "common law" conflict of interest ("De la Torre Scores Key Victory in Conflict of Interest Case," June 17, 2022).

"De La Torre does not have a personal interest in the CVRA (California Voting Rights Act) Litigation because that lawsuit does not seek relief that is individual or personal to De La Torre, nor to his immediate family or his business interests," Fruin wrote.

Fruin found that it is "immaterial" that de la Torre's wife, Maria Loya, is a lead plaintiff in the case or that before he was elected in November 2020 he "actively participated" in the lawsuit as head of the Pico Neighborhood Association (PNA), the other lead plaintiff.

A common law conflict involves "a personal interest that is different from the general public’s interest," Fruin wrote. The voting rights lawsuit "addresses a matter of significant public debate in the Santa Monica community."

Filed in 2016, the voting rights lawsuit -- which charges Santa Monica's at-large election system discriminates against Latino voters -- is currently before the California Supreme Court ("Supreme Court Takes Up Voting Rights Lawsuit," October 21, 2020).

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