CITY HALL — The attorney for Elizabeth Riel, who was offered and then denied a top city job, filed a lawsuit against City Hall on Wednesday alleging that City Manager Rod Gould bullied Riel after he learned of her past political affiliations.
The lawsuit further alleges that the job offer was rescinded because of contributions she made in 2006 to a Santa Monica Coalition For a Livable City political campaign, which was critical of now-Mayor Pam O’Connor, and because, in the same year, she penned a Daily Press column that was critical of City Hall.
Riel, who had previously led the North of Montana Association neighborhood group, officially accepted the Communications and Public Affairs Officer position in early May. The position entails, among other things, communicating with the press.
At the start of Memorial Day weekend, the lawsuit alleges, Gould sent Riel an e-mail stating that “he needed to speak with her about ‘a small, but gnarly political issue.’”
They spoke on the phone later that day.
“In an angry and accusatory tone,” the lawsuit alleges, “Gould berated Riel and said that ‘we have a very serious situation.’ He complained that Riel had ‘contributed to a hit piece’ against Council member O’Connor in 2006 and that she ‘wrote articles against the city that were anti-development,’ using words to that effect.”
Riel replied, according to the lawsuit, that she had nothing to hide, that her resume referenced her having written for the Daily Press, and that Gould was aware of her association with the neighborhood groups.
Gould then began reading from the Daily Press column, the suit alleges. He went on, according to the suit, to say that he was “deeply troubled” that she either forgot to mention or deliberately concealed the fact that she wrote the column.
“After being unfairly accused and bullied by Gould,” the suit alleges, “Riel responded that she was ‘within her rights to write the column,’ to which Gould responded, to the effect, ‘and you certainly exercised them to the fullest.’”
Gould closed the conversation, according to the suit, by stating that he was going to think it over, and that Riel should, too.
The suit claims that Riel spent the weekend in “shock” and “a state of depression.”
On Memorial Day, Gould called to tell her that he was terminating the contract because the situation created “severe political problems,” according to Riel’s lawsuit.
Gould, the lawsuit said, asked her to resign and publicly announce that she was voluntarily stepping down. Riel refused and asked for something in writing, the suit alleges. She never received a statement.
As an aside, and not mentioned in the lawsuit, council member Kevin McKeown told the Daily Press that before the offer was officially rescinded he made clear to Gould that Riel had contributed to his campaign and that she was featured on his website. Gould, McKeown said, told him that it wasn’t a problem.
Debbie Lee, who was working at the time as the vice president at Downtown Santa Monica Inc., was offered and accepted the job.
The job carries a $155,000 annual salary plus benefits.
The lawsuit notes that Riel — on top of having worked for Harvard University and the American Foundation of Equal Rights, which successfully overturned California’s Proposition 8 before the U.S. Supreme Court — helped organize the city’s first Fourth of July parade on Main Street and provided communication consulting for City Hall’s own Wellbeing Report Card.
The Daily Press sent a copy of the complaint to Gould; as is customary, city officials declined to comment given pending litigation.
“I can’t comment,” said City Attorney Marsha Moutrie. “We just received the complaint and have not yet had time to fully assess it. And, it’s not our practice to comment on pending litigation.”
Gould said in a release last week that, because it is a personnel matter, he wouldn’t be able to comment. In the same release he noted the importance of political neutrality.
“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.”
O’Connor told the Daily Press she “might have commented” to Gould on her experience with Riel but that she can’t tell the city manager what to do.
After claiming he wasn’t receiving sufficient answers to his questions about the situation, McKeown called for an evaluation of Gould’s job during the closed session of last week’s council meeting.
McKeown declined to comment on the outcome of that evaluation.
Riel’s suit claims she is entitled to compensatory damages resulting from lost income and from the emotional distress, anxiety, and depression she suffered from as a result of the rescission. City Hall, the suit said, violated her First Amendment rights and other statutory protections.