CITY HALL — City Hall will likely be sued over a recent controversial employment decision.
An attorney representing Elizabeth Riel, whose job offer for a top city position was rescinded last month, said he will file a lawsuit against City Hall in the next week.
Riel was offered the job 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. Last week, city officials announced they’d rescinded the position and offered it to Debbie Lee, the vice president of Downtown Santa Monica Inc.
“I am deeply disappointed that the City of Santa Monica – where my husband and I have lived, raised our children, and worked to support our community for more than 10 years – will not allow me to serve simply because I was involved in city affairs,” Riel said in a statement. “I think our democracy thrives when everyone is encouraged to be civically engaged and speak their minds. I am afraid that the actions by the City of Santa Monica will discourage other community members, as well as Californians across the state, from getting involved and making a difference in their own communities, because they fear that government agencies may later retaliate against them.”
Steven J. Kaplan, Riel’s attorney, said that the contract was terminated because of a “legal campaign contribution she made in 2006.”
Riel contributed to Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City’s (SMCLC) campaign against a proposed development, a campaign that also criticized current Mayor Pam O’Connor.
“Ms. Riel contends that the City of Santa Monica violated her First Amendment rights of free speech and association,” Kaplan said in a statement, “by rescinding her employment contract because” of the contribution.
Noting that it is a personnel matter, City Manager Rod Gould has declined to comment on his reason for rescinding the offer. On Friday, he did release a statement explaining the importance of political neutrality in the position.
“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.”
Riel also contributed to Councilmember Kevin McKeown’s campaign, something McKeown said he made apparent to Gould when he learned of her initial hiring. Gould, McKeown claims, said it wouldn’t be a problem.
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.
Per McKeown’s request, City Council will evaluate Gould’s job during the closed session of Tuesday’s meeting.
Riel was formerly a chair of the North of Montana Association. She’s also worked in communication efforts for issues like marriage equality for gay and lesbian Americans, early childhood education, foster care adoption, and City Hall’s Youth Wellbeing Report Card, according to Kaplan’s statement.
In City Hall’s initial announcement of Riel’s hiring, Gould lauded her “deep understanding and commitment to Santa Monica,” which he said resulted from “raising her family, consulting and volunteering in our fair city.”
Kaplan’s statement said the lawsuit would assert claims for breach of Riel’s First Amendments rights of free speech and association, violation of a state code that, according to Kaplan “prohibits restrictions on the political activities of any municipal employee,” and claims relating to City Hall’s breach of her employment contract.
“The right to engage in civic activities, and the right to make political contributions, are among the most sacred rights we have as citizens, and go to the very heart of our democratic system,” Kaplan said. “These are activities that should be encouraged by our government leaders. The City of Santa Monica’s unlawful termination of Ms. Riel’s contract was a blatant violation of those rights. Ironically, few people have done more to advance equality and fair treatment under the law for all Californians than Ms. Riel.”