CITY HALL ‚Äî A federal district judged denied City Hall’s motion to toss a case brought against them by a resident who was offered a top city job and then dismissed because of her past political involvement.
City Hall announced the hiring of Elizabeth Riel to the Communications and Public Affairs Officer position in May and City Manager Rod Gould rescinded that offer in June for personnel reasons that, at the time, he would not discuss.
The job would have involved communication with the press, and other organizations, on behalf of City Hall.
Riel had been critical of City Hall in a 2006 Daily Press column and she contributed to a Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City campaign that attacked then Mayor Pam O’Connor for accepting campaign contributions from a developer.
O’Connor told the Daily Press in June that she “might have commented” to Gould on her experience with Riel but that she can’t tell the city manager what to do.
Riel filed a lawsuit against City Hall and Gould claiming that her First Amendment rights had been violated. Gould, the lawsuit said, told her that her past political involvement was the reason for her firing.
Gould announced in August that he will retire next year.
City Hall filed a motion to dismiss this lawsuit in August. They said, among many other things, that Riel’s 2006 political activities would have “directly impaired her ability to function in the office and would have interfered with her professional relationships with the City’s leadership.”
Judge Beverly Reid O’Connell found none of City Hall’s arguments compelling enough to dismiss the case.
“Because (City Hall and Gould) offer no justification for (Riel’s) termination independent from her protected speech,” she said, “the Court finds (City Hall and Gould) fail to satisfy their burden. Accordingly, the Court finds (Riel) sets forth valid claims for First Amendment retaliation against both the City and Gould.”
City Attorney Marsha Moutrie declined to comment on the merits of the case; city attorneys rarely comment on on-going litigation.
“But, as to the process,” she said in an e-mail, “a ruling on a motion to dismiss is merely a ruling on the sufficiency of the complaint. So, this ruling is not a decision on Ms. Riel’s claims. Instead, the ruling merely allows her to continue her case against the City and City Manager. And, the case is in its earliest stage, presumably with much more to come.”
For now, she said, City Hall needs to evaluate its options. Whatever they decide, she said, the outside attorneys hired to handle the case will “continue their vigorous defense.”
Riel’s lawyer Steven J. Kaplan called the judge’s decision “thoughtful and well-reasoned” in a release.
“We are now looking forward to proving our claims,” he said, “and showing the Court and a jury that the City of Santa Monica and City Manager Gould inexcusably punished one of its own residents because she criticized city government and participated – like any citizen should – in the political process.”
Kaplan provided the Daily Press with O’Connell’s 19-page decision.
“After reviewing the cases cited by (Riel),” reads one section of the decision, “the Court finds that a reasonable person would … understand (Riel’s) termination was unconstitutional.”
O’Connell goes on to say that the court recognizes City Hall’s interest in “avoiding disruption and maintaining cooperation” may be stronger – given the job requirements of the Communications and Public Affairs Officer – than in the precedents provided in the decision. Still, the decision said, the “threat of discord” between Riel and city officials does not outweigh the former’s First Amendment rights.
Riel’s 2006 political activities, the decision says, don’t amount to “mere criticism” of City Hall or elected officials’ visions or policies.
“Rather,” the judge said, “(Riel’s) speech sought to expose the public to potentially illegal activities.”
dave@smdp.com

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