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Santa Monica Council Members Propose Outside Review of Hiring Controversy

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

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Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica

By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

September 29, 2015 -- Three members of the Santa Monica City Council on Tuesday will propose an outside review of the hiring and abrupt firing of Elizabeth Riel as City communications director, a move that has been surrounded by controversy.

In addition to reviewing the case, Council members Sue Himmelrich, Gleam Davis and Tony Vazquez are proposing that staff look at how other California cities handle anti-corruption laws similar to those in Santa Monica.

Riel’s job offer was rescinded last year allegedly for her involvement in a 2006 election campaign against Council member Pam O’Connor. In July, the Council agreed to a $710,000 settlement in the First Amendment lawsuit, although some place the total cost to the City at closer to the $1 million when the hiring of outside attorneys is included.

“I think we are required to look at what went wrong and ended up costing us a million dollars,” said Himmelrich, who said she drafted the proposal that is going before the Council Tuesday.

“This is not a prosecution,” Himmelrich added. “We need to know why this went wrong and how we can enforce our local ordinances.  We need to be more transparent, because people have a very distrustful way of looking at government.”

The proposed review comes in the wake of calls by the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) for an “unfettered investigation.” The slow-growth group – which was behind the 2006 campaign opposing O’Connor -- said it was taking a wait-and-see approach to the motion.

“It needs to be someone well qualified to conduct an independent review and go beyond the record in the Riel lawsuit which was developed for a different purpose,” said Diana Gordon one of the leaders of the coalition.

“But we are in agreement with Council member Himmelrich that any legitimate review would be based on our complaint and begin with unraveling the Riel matter, using it as the template for uncovering what all went wrong at the senior staff level.”

Santa Monica’s City Charter prohibits the City Council from interfering in hiring and firing matters, a job which is left to the City Manager.

The SMCLC, which conducted its own probe, accuses O’Connor of engaging in a behind-the-scenes campaign to keep Riel from assuming her new post last year.

The group points to emails from O’Connor to then-City Manager Rod Gould it says show that O’Connor “relentlessly” applied pressure behind the scenes to have Riel fired.

O’Connor has denied any wrongdoing and has said she welcomes any investigations. She says the SMCLC is a longtime political foe that is continuing its agenda against her.

The District Attorney’s Office has agreed to review the complaint.

Himmelrich, who is an attorney, believes much of the problem lies in enforcement of the city’s anti-corruption regulations.  In a different case this year, complaints were filed against Gould for accepting employment from a firm that had received contracts he approved as City Manager.

That complaint was filed with City Attorney Marsha Moutrie, who deemed it a conflict of interest to investigate a city employee and forwarded the case to county prosecutors, who declined to step in.

Complaints “get kicked to the D.A. and then nothing happens,” Himmelrich said, adding that the Council needs to find out “how we can move forward.”

SMCLC has called on the Council to “authorize a full, independent” review in order to “restore community confidence and trust in City government.

“It's vital to ask the hard questions that will yield real answers,” the SMCLC said in a statement, “not just (engage in) some academic exercise in ‘good practices’ going forward.”

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