An independent investigation into the City of Santa Monica’s ethical procedures has determined Santa Monica officials experienced “lapses in judgment” in relation to the Elizabeth Riel case and that the City can enforce its anti-corruption laws.
City Hall hired John Hueston last year to address concerns about the way the city has handled ethics complaints related to the Oaks Initiative and the hiring/firing Riel. In both cases, local advocates have argued the City’s actions have eroded public trust and potentially violated standards of behavior.
Hueston returned his report this week with recommendations on both topics.
The report rehashes the facts behind the Riel case. Riel was offered a position with the city and that offer was rescinded under pressure from Councilwoman Pam O’Connor. Riel sued the city resulting in a $710,000 settlement.
“In our opinion, there were several lapses in judgment in connection with the events described above, and those lapses had cascading consequences,” said Hueston’s report.
The report does not accuse O’Connor of making overt efforts to violate city law, but it does state that her actions had an inappropriate influence over the situation.
In the report, Hueston said councilmembers should be mindful of restrictions in the City Charter that limit councilmembers ability to influence staffing decisions. The report said O’Connor was not mindful of those restrictions in her conversations with then City Manager Rod Gould, and that her actions moved beyond an ethical expression of concern into clearly threatening behavior.
“At best, Ms. O’Connor showed bad judgment in wording her e-mails in a way that had the foreseeable potential of influencing the City Manager’s hiring decision. At worst, Ms. O’Connor consciously and intentionally attempted to influence the City Manager’s hiring decision. In either case, Ms. O’Connor showed a failure to understand the limitations of her role as a councilmember in Santa Monica city government,” said the report.
During the discussion of Riel’s termination, staff utilized private email accounts and Hueston’s second recommendation was to instruct all city officials and employees to keep communications on city systems.
“Almost all employees we interviewed had no understanding of the existing city e-mail policy. We specifically recommend that the city manager instruct and train city employees to use the city e-mail system for all city business,” said the report.
The report said the potential for wrongdoing is exceptionally high when communications are taken to private systems but in this case, staff was willing to provide copies of all communications to investigators. The disclosure, combined with the tone of the conversation, suggest the behavior is a symptom of poor training/enforcement and not a deliberate attempt at concealing wrongdoing.
Hueston also recommends adopting a standard hiring practice for open at-will positions, such as department heads, that utilizes an interview process for determining successful candidates. Civil service positions already utilize an interview system but department head positions are exempt from the Civil Service standards.
Debbie Lee was first offered the position without a panel interview, but declined. It was subsequently offered to Riel after a panel interview. Following her termination, Lee was again offered the position without an interview and she accepted the second offer.
“This recommendation is based on the finding during our review that failure to solicit applications from the public for open positions or failure to use an interview panel to select the best candidate has created doubt in Santa Monica about the merits and qualifications of city employees and about the fairness of the process used to recruit them,” said the report.
In the report, Hueston said Gould provided differing levels of information to councilmembers and Hueston said best practices requires equal communication between the city manager and the councilmembers.
Hueston said political neutrality could be considered a desirable characteristic for some at will positions. He said the City’s Human Resources Department should proactively determine which positions require neutrality and that requirement should be written into the job descriptions.
“Unfortunately, that prerequisite was not communicated to applicants who wished to be considered for the Communications Position in 2014,” the report said.
Santa Monica has chosen not to pursue complaints filed against former and current city officials via the Oaks Initiative. Private citizens have pursued civil action under the law resulting in a settlement with former City Manager Rod Gould.
Hueston’s team concluded the law is enforceable at the local level. The report states Council should take action to revise, refine and update the law to improve clarity but based on other cases nationwide, the rule is viable. The report said the Criminal Division of the City Attorney’s office is insulated from potential conflict of interest and can therefore prosecute Oaks complaints. Or, the city could hire a special prosecutor.
“The Hueston Report validates Santa Monica’s commitment to open government and transparency,” City Manager Rick Cole said in a statement. “In addition to constructive recommendations for enforcing the Oaks Initiative, it exhaustively documents the facts of Elizabeth Riel’s dismissal, identifying unfortunate lapses in judgment and pointing the way to improve our processes going forward. It demonstrates yet again that we accept responsibility for holding ourselves to the highest standards of public service.”
The full report is available online at http://www.smgov.net/Departments/CMO/IndependentReview.aspx.