A judge ruled Thursday that former Los Angeles City Ethics Commission President Serena Oberstein is ineligible to run for the City Council District 12 seat she is seeking, and directed the city and county to take all necessary action to remove her from the ballot.
Reaffirming a tentative ruling issued on Wednesday, Los Angeles Judge James C. Chalfant found that Oberstein was ineligible due to her recent service on the voluntary commission, from which she resigned late last year.
Frank Ferry, a former member of the Santa Clarita City Council, filed a lawsuit earlier this month looking to block Oberstein from running in the June 4 special election to replace former Councilman Mitchell Englander, who stepped down at the beginning of the year to take a private-sector job.
Ferry argued the city charter’s “revolving door” rules prohibit an ethics commissioner from running for a city office for two years following the end of the commissioner’s term if the panel made any decisions relating to the office being sought.
Chalfant sided with Ferry’s interpretation of the city charter over Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer’s office, which wrote in court filings that the lawsuit’s interpretation of the city charter was “overbroad” and “not consistent with both the plain language and legislative history” of the charter.
“I believe that running for office is one of the most fundamental rights in a democracy,” Oberstein said in a statement. “When I ran for office, I did what any reasonable person in my situation would do — I asked the city whether I was eligible to run, and the city deemed me to be eligible. It’s unfortunate that one Republican-appointed judge has made a decision that effectively deprives my community, the voters of Council District 12, the right to make a decision that should be theirs — and potentially deprives the community of great future candidates as well.”
She added, “I am profoundly grateful and humbled by everybody who volunteered their time and efforts behind our campaign and our message that City Hall needs to be changed. However, while I strongly disagree with the content of this ruling, I will not be appealing it, as the appeals process would be so arduous and costly that it would be unfair to my family and supporters.”
Oberstein stepped down from her ethics post in November after serving on the commission for roughly five years, including as its president since last August.
“As residents of Los Angeles, we should all applaud this decision because the court sided with the rule of law,” Ferry said in a statement. “The Los Angeles City Charter is clear that members of the City Ethics Commission are prohibited from running for office in Los Angeles for two years after leaving the commission. The decision brings transparency to government. I believe strongly that government accountability is about maintaining the trust between government officials and citizens. Government must not only operate lawfully and ethically but it needs to work hard to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.”
Feuer’s office argued in its court filing that the city charter section referenced in the lawsuit is only “meant to preclude members of the Ethics Commission from making a decision about a particular official or incumbent in office, and subsequently running against that official.”
City Clerk Holly Wolcott was named as a defendant in the lawsuit, along with the city of Los Angeles, the County of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk Dean Logan. The lawsuit sought to remove Oberstein from the ballot. A lawyer for the county previously said that in order not to interfere with the election, the ballot needs to be finalized by Thursday’s date.
The city charter specifically states that neither “a member of the (Ethics) Commission nor its executive director shall seek election to any city office or Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education office concerning which the commission has made a decision during the term of the commissioner or executive director unless the election for that office is to be held at least two years following the expiration of the term of office of the commissioner or executive director.”
Ferry’s lawsuit states that in Oberstein’s five years on the commission, she voted on a number of decisions involving the City Council and candidates seeking election to the council, including an October 2018 motion recommending an increase of the amount of matching campaign funds a council candidate may receive. The motion passed, and the “same action also made it easier for candidates, including (Oberstein), to receive those campaign funds,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit also listed a number of actions the Ethics Commission had taken during Oberstein’s tenure that directly involved Council District 12, including a fine for a CD 12 candidate, Navraj Singh, who ran in 2011 and is now a candidate again for the same seat.
“Oberstein participated in and voted on numerous commission decisions involving the City Council and candidates seeking election to the City Council,” Chalfant wrote. “Some of the recent decisions in which Oberstein participated will directly benefit her candidacy for City Council. Oberstein has chosen to ignore the City Charter’s revolving door provision by seeking elective office.”
In response to the lawsuit, Oberstein’s campaign earlier this month stated that Wolcott had officially verified Oberstein’s candidacy, and according to the city charter, if there were any issues with Oberstein’s candidacy, the city clerk would not have accepted her nominating petitions.
The campaign also said California courts have consistently held that the right to seek public office is a “fundamental right.”
“It’s clear that the good ol’ boys club and downtown City Hall special interests are afraid of an ethics watchdog and another woman on the City Council,” Oberstein said in a statement issued earlier this month. “Simply put — this lawsuit is attempting to silence, marginalize and discriminate against our campaign and our movement of change because I am a working mom and a former City Ethics Commission president who will root out corruption, deliver for Valley neighborhoods and raise the bar at City Hall to rebuild the public trust. I say, bring it on.”