Four years ago, the state Senate was thrown into turmoil by the simultaneous prosecution of three senators on unrelated felony charges.
The Senate compelled all three to step aside from their duties, but could not legally strip them of their salaries and benefits while they awaited disposition of their cases, which eventually ended in convictions. In effect, they got long paid vacations, which didn’t sit well with the voting public.
So legislative leaders decided, understandably, that they needed some formal procedures for future scandals. The result was 2016’s Proposition 50, which empowered legislative houses, by two-thirds votes, to suspend, without pay, members who either face criminal charges or who have breached the public trust.
The Legislature is once again in turmoil, this time by multiple allegations of sexual harassment. Two Assembly members have resigned, a state senator has been suspended – with pay – and an assemblywoman voluntarily suspended herself without pay when she was accused of sexual harassment. That case is a bombshell. Cristina Garcia, a Bell Gardens Democrat, has been one of the leaders of the #MeToo movement seeking an end to harassment in and around the Capitol.
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More than a dozen other investigations into harassment are pending.
The Legislature is handling each case on an ad hoc basis, rather than via the procedures in Proposition 50.
Tony Mendoza’s case is particularly troubling. The Democratic senator from Artesia is accused not only of sexually harassing staffers but firing those who complained. In January, a formal measure to oust him was in the air, but after a four-hour, closed-door meeting of Democratic senators, it was announced he would take a one-month leave with pay.
Mendoza conceded nothing and some senators were clearly concerned that suspending might prompt retaliation by airing dirty linen about other senators.
After the one-month suspension was up, the Senate voted to extend Mendoza’s suspension 60 days. Again, with pay and contrary to the provisions of Prop 50.
There were also allegations of excessive hugging against Van Nuys Democrat Robert Hertzberg, but the Senate has taken no action.
Mendoza complained he had been singled out. Having told voters that Proposition 50 would govern such situations, legislative leaders instead are again making it up as they go along.
One accused senator is getting a paid vacation, another continues to function without penalty and an assemblywoman voluntarily suspends herself without pay.
“It’s not always neat,” Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León said on the Senate floor as it considered the resolution continuing Mendoza’s suspension. “It’s frustrating sometimes, but it’s beyond our reach.”
No, it isn’t. If the Senate, or Assembly, believes one of its members shouldn’t continue in office, Proposition 50 explains how that should happen. The member would be suspended on a two-thirds vote without pay until he or she is exonerated or proven guilty.
What’s happening now doesn’t bolster the public’s confidence in the system – or non-system.
Dan Walters writes on matters of statewide significance for CALmatters, a public-interest journalism venture. Go to calmatters.org/commentary.