One of City Hall’s biggest public relations disasters in recent years is the hiring and firing of a public relations manager. Ironic, Huh?

With the retirement of long time Deputy City Manager Kate Vernez, City Hall honchos redefined her job description as “Communications and Public Affairs Officer” whose duties are to “interact with all members of the City Council, community leaders, the media, other legislators and serve as the official spokesperson for city government,” announced City Manager Rod Gould last month.

After an extensive search and evaluation process, the former chair of the North of Montana Neighborhood Association and slow-growth advocate Elizabeth Riel was hired for a job pays a whopping $155,784 annually plus benefits.

Days later, she was fired. It seems that Riel may have been a little bit too involved in local politics — making Gould and at least one elected politician uncomfortable.

The Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) charged that politics were behind Gould’s decision to fire Riel and has suggested that he acted illegally. Riel’s attorney Steven Kaplan filed a lawsuit last Wednesday against City Hall and Gould personally calling Riel’s firing unlawful and “a ‘blatant violation’ of her First Amendment rights.”

Riel had contributed to a 2006 SMCLC campaign that opposed the re-election of councilwoman Pam O’Connor and contributed to Kevin McKeown’s re-election campaign. McKeown and O’Connor are fierce political opponents.

Gould also complained that Riel had written a column for this newspaper accusing O’Connor of “selling out” to developers. Hummm, I guess there’s zero chance of me getting a City Hall job, now.

Mayor O’Connor has accepted tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from developers and other business interests over the years.

Councilman Kevin McKeown told the Daily Press (“SM City Council to evaluate Gould over rescinded job offer,” June 6, Pg. 1) that he was excited when first told that Riel had been offered the job and he had specifically highlighted her political history to Gould.

McKeown said he informed Gould the she “had in the past been a political supporter of mine…” Gould responded in an e-mail saying, “…past involvement should not be a problem.”

McKeown reported that he was “shocked” when he found out the offer was rescinded and spoke with Gould about the decision.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 reported. “He (Gould) told me the information about Elizabeth was brought to him by someone, but declined to reveal to me who that someone is.”

McKeown found the conversation “insufficiently clarifying” and asked that a council evaluation of Gould’s job be put on the closed session agenda at the next council meeting.

Who complained about Riel, thus forcing Gould to switch horses in midstream – and fall off in the process? It’s almost universally believed that O’Connor demanded Riel’s termination.

Gould responded in his own position statement by writing, “…To have the trust of all involved, this person must be free of all political alliances.”

Debbie Lee, the current vice president of Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. (the city-affiliated entity that oversees Downtown business-building activities), Chamber of Commerce activist and a former vice president of business development for the Santa Monica Convention and Visitors Bureau was quickly recruited to replace Riel. Obviously, there’s no “political alliances” agenda involved in insider Lee’s speedy appointment.

Is Gould claiming a long history of employment with city-subsidized, Downtown Santa Monica business interests isn’t a “political alliance” but contributing to political campaigns and advocating for a lower key approach to development is?

The lawsuit declares that Riel’s “wholly legitimate conduct was fully protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.” It calls Gould’s actions a “reprisal.” and charges him with ‘acting oppressively, maliciously, fraudulently, and/or outrageously toward Riel.”

This embarrassing situation has become a political disaster of the highest order. While I have nothing against Debbie Lee – she seems well-qualified — she still represents Downtown business interests and their pro-development philosophy.

Eventually, we’ll find out if O’Connor precipitated this screw-up. It may take time to get the stench out of City Hall and Gould may well end up going with it.

 

‘A’ lot mystery solved 

 

City Planning Director David Martin finally admitted that the controversial zoning change of 89 “A” lots (or buffer parcels) behind commercial developments from “residential” to “commercial” was done deliberately.

In October, 2013, Northeast Neighbors leaders questioned how and why the controversial zoning changes in Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) maps came about. The designations were then declared “mistakes” by Martin and Gould.

Martin told planning commissioners last Wednesday that planning staff had deliberately changed the residential “A” lots – mostly now used for off-street surface parking — to encourage denser development on major boulevards citywide, including proposed massive Wilshire Boulevard activity centers at Centinela Avenue and 14th Street.

Martin said the changes were originally made to permit deeper developments to facilitate larger, mixed-use projects and “to incentivize redevelopment.”

City Attorney Barry Rosenbaum claimed the map was seen by City Council four years ago during LUCE reviews.  Martin indicated that after investigating, they weren’t able to identify a place where those (“A” lot) changes were thoroughly discussed.

Bottom line, the lot designations weren’t “mistakes” but deliberately changed by “staff,” apparently with no public input.  And, “staff” covered up how that happened or lied about it for years.

The “A” lot controversy on top of the Riel debacle has further alienated the people from City Hall which continues to lose credibility.

 

 

 

Bill can be reached at mr.bilbau@gmail.com.

 

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