CITY HALL — City Council will evaluate City Manager Rod Gould’s job on Tuesday per request of Councilmember Kevin McKeown who has said Gould did not provide “fully satisfactory answers” to questions regarding a recent employment decision.
Elizabeth Riel was offered the position of Public Affairs and Communications Officer last month. The job description includes, among other things, communicating with the media and carries a salary of $155,784. Earlier this week city officials announced that Riel’s offer had been rescinded. Debbie Lee, current vice president of Downtown Santa Monica Inc., was then offered the position.
Gould would not elaborate with the Daily Press about why Riel’s offer was rescinded, noting that it is an employment issue but City Hall released a statement regarding the situation.
“It is essential that members of my office and the department heads serve all residents, community groups and the City Councilmembers equally and fairly,” Gould said in the statement. “We must park our political opinions at the door each day. We must be politically astute, but apolitical. We cannot be viewed as political players or politically aligned with any particular leaders or interest groups.”
Riel has not responded to the Daily Press’ request for comment.
Riel, who was once the head of the North of Montana Neighborhood Association, has made contributions to McKeown and the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC), which has challenged City Hall in the past, most recently its controversial agreement with the developer Hines. That agreement has since been overturned by council.
McKeown, said he was excited when first told that Riel had been offered the job and he specifically highlighted her political history to Gould.
“I immediately shared my enthusiasm (Elizabeth would be GREAT in that job), and just as immediately realized I should let Rod know that Elizabeth had in the past been a political supporter of mine and that, in fact, her image still remained on my website,” he said in an e-mail. “He said past involvement should not be a problem. I even asked if he’d be more comfortable if I removed Elizabeth’s image from my website, and said that would not be necessary.”
He was “shocked” when he found out the offer was rescinded and spoke with Gould about the decision.
“I had several questions, and got fully satisfactory answers on none of them,” McKeown said.
“He told me the information about Elizabeth was brought to him by someone, but declined to reveal to me who that someone is,” he continued. “Who has that kind of political influence?”
McKeown found the conversation “insufficiently clarifying” and asked that Gould place a council evaluation of his own job on the next agenda.
Mayor Pam O’Connor, who was the subject the SMCLC attack campaign that Riel contributed to, said that she never asked Gould to rescind Riel’s offer.
“I might have commented on my experience with her,” O’Connor said. “But I can’t tell the city manager what to do.”
O’Connor said that she doesn’t know Riel well.
“I didn’t even remember that she had attacked me until after I had done some research but what I did remember is that my brain personally said, ‘Don’t trust her.’ My brain probably thought that because she attacked me,” she said. “I do let things go to a certain level, like that detail, but we humans, we want to protect ourselves.”
She pointed to the International City/County Management Association “Code of Ethics with Guidelines” which includes one tenet: “Refrain from all political activities which undermine public confidence in professional administrators.”
Gould noted in his statement that in most City Hall positions, political activity is not of concern.
“The duties of the Communications and Public Affairs Officer are different from most other positions in that this person must interact with all members of the City Council, various community leaders, the media, other legislators and serve as the official spokesperson for City government,” he said. “To have the trust of all involved, this person must be free of all political alliances.”
Deputy City Manager Kate Vernez, who recently retired from a similar role, “epitomized political neutrality,” he said.
McKeown questioned the timing of the rescission.
“If political involvement was judged by the city manager to be a kill-the-deal issue, why did the City Manager not do further background research immediately after talking with me?” he said.
Councilmember Ted Winterer declined to comment given the possibility for litigation against City Hall.
SMCLC has filed a public records request, asking for information about the rescission.