The implosion of the Los Angeles City Council this month, after three of its members were secretly recorded talking in racist terms, has thrown the political machinery of one of America's largest cities into crisis.
As of now, there is one empty seat on the 15-member body after one of the three recorded members resigned, and the remaining members who weren't part of the racist conversation have all publicly demanded that the two others resign, going as far as stripping them of nearly all their committee assignments. And on Sunday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said he is "looking forward" to an announcement of the two council members' departures soon.
But despite the outcry, Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León refuse to quit, expecting they can wait out the storm of fallout for their participation in a racist conversation in which they and former City Council President Nury Martinez disparaged a white colleague's adopted 2-year-old Black son and discussed strategies to consolidate their power at the expense of Black leadership. Martinez stepped down days after the audio was leaked.
Their insistence to stay on means both men will continue to draw from their hefty salaries at the expense of irate taxpayers, even as they skip out on City Council meetings where the public continues to demand their ouster.
In 2021, LA City Council members took home roughly $218,000 in pay, according to the California State Controller's Office, which gets its information from the city's W-2 tax forms. And there's more than just their base salaries — as city employees, they get about $66,000 a year toward their pensions. Taxpayers are also footing the bill for a car for each member, as well as meal and travel expenses.
Taking away the extras, the average member's base salary is about $70,000 higher than those of council members in San Francisco and New York. It's also about $35,000 a year more than the governor of California's pay, which was about $183,000 in 2021.
The discrepancy between what council members are paid and what many of their constituents make is even greater, especially when zeroing in on the incomes of people who live in pockets of de León's and Cedillo's districts. In Boyle Heights, a largely Latino working-class neighborhood in de León's district, for example, the median household income, according to the latest Census Bureau figures available, is about $44,000. And about 26% of people are living in poverty. In Chinatown, which is in Cedillo's district, the median household income is just under $50,000.
As of now, there's no indication that either de León or Cedillo plans to step down, short of a recall election.
De León went on English- and Spanish-language television last week to apologize for his role in the inflammatory conversation and to clarify that he is not resigning.
"I have to do the hard work to repair the ties with my brothers and with my sisters in our African American community," he said, insisting that stepping down would be the easy way out.
And a spokesman for Cedillo said that the veteran Latino leader remains at "a place of reflection."
Meanwhile, Cedillo and de León have avoided council meetings in recent days. De León has been removed as head of the Homelessness and Poverty Committee as well as the Budget and Finance Committee. Cedillo was also removed as chair of the Housing Committee and a committee that reviews major development projects.
If de León manages to out the remaining two years of his term, taxpayers will be paying him about $568,000 in combined salary and pension. The tab for Cedillo, whose term ends in December, will be a lot less, though at roughly $18,000 a month in salary, it adds up to a minimum of $36,000 that he will have been paid since the scandal broke.