Court documents from a recent lawsuit appear to confirm the longstanding belief that Elizabeth Riel was fired due to her past political activities.
Riel was offered the position of Communications and Public Affairs Officer in 2014, however, then City Manager Rod Gould rescinded the offer the next month for what was described as “personnel reasons.” Gould has since retired.
Speculation for the decision focused on a 2006 donation made by Riel to a campaign that was running attack advertisements against Councilwoman Pam O’Connor, who was seeking reelection at the time. Riel also penned a column that appeared in the Daily Press, which was critical of decisions made by city officials.
O’Connor told the Daily Press in June of 2014 that she “might have commented” to Gould about her discomfort with the hiring of Riel. She went on to explain 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 but dropped Gould from the suit earlier this year. The City settled their suit in July for $710,000.
Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) published excerpts of depositions, emails and other records earlier this week. A Daily Press review of the same documents confirms O’Connor communicated with Gould about the decision and Riel’s deposition provides the first account of the situation from her perspective.
O’Connor began an email exchange with Gould on May 22 after the City had announced her hiring. O’Connor questioned Riel’s neutrality, criticized the background check process and referenced Riel’s contributions to SMCLC.
In an email dated May 22 O’Connor wrote:
“I will be extremely hesitant to work with Elizabeth Riel, especially during the campaign season. If I need support on Mayoral things, I want someone else assigned. In past elections, SMCLC has attacked me,” she said.
She continued in another email:
“I do not and will not trust her. I will not work with her not because she is a supporter of others but she attacked me directly by putting money onto a hit piece. There are very few direct hit pieces done in Santa Monica and she was a leader in this effort.
Then she is a supporter of Kevin (McKeown). What confidence do I have that she is not going to elevate him and his position and be dismissive of me – as we go into a political season!
This is a best practice of City Managers! Hire people who are political enemies of people elected to your council?
I will be sharing this with others in the community and will be asking people for their opinion about her being in this position.”
Her final email about the subject on May 23 said:
“I am still running even through I am being attacked from both outside City Hall and from within City Hall.
And I am curious about Best Practices of City Management and if this is one of them.
Always a learning experience!”
Gould responded saying he has great respect and admiration for Pam and that he is aware it will be a harsh campaign season. He said the Council has the right to terminate the City Manager at will, but employees under the Manager have additional protections. In his conversation he said that if Riel said she was biased, then he will rescind the offer. However, “if she insists that she can discharge the full duties of the position, then I must allow her to begin work.”
“If you and the council have lost confidence in me as a result of this hiring decision, then I will tender my resignation.”
Gould said filtering candidates based on politics is not part of the job process and in emails to staff he said he thought they had made the right hiring decision.
However, in an email to O’Connor dated May 23, 2014 Gould wrote:
“Am moving toward a decision to retract the job offer based on a conversation with Elizabeth that was less then helpful.”
Based on the deposition transcripts, Gould appears to lose faith in Riel based on her past political actions, actions he said he was unaware of until late May. It appears he did not want to publicly state the reason for his decision and in an email to staff, he suggested the city reference an expanded set of job requirements for the decision rather than reference politics.
According to an email sent to the Daily Press last year, Gould knew some of Riel’s history as early as May 5 when then Councilman McKeown discussed Riel’s past involvement during a meeting between McKeown and Gould. At that time, Gould reportedly told McKeown that Riel’s past activates would not be a problem but he changed his mind following the conversation with O’Connor.
“It was unlikely that (Riel) would have the trust and confidence of all members of the city council and a number of the community and business groups,” he said in his statement.
Gould went on to outline the actions he saw as problematic.
“Leadership in the Measure T campaign, combined with the leadership in crafting the so-called hit piece upon Mayor O’Connor, combined with active support for Kevin McKeown in terms of volunteering for his campaign and making campaign contributions and a leadership position in this advocacy organization together, convinced me that she would not be perceived as objective, unbiased or apolitical by members of the city council and various community groups in Santa Monica,” he said.
The advocacy organization he referenced was SMCLC.
He said Riel would be viewed as aligned with the slow-growth faction of the council and as against some members of the council or in favor of others. “Hence she would not be viewed as objective or apolitical or neutral,” he said.
In her testimony, Riel said Gould criticized her for a lack of transparency regarding her political activity.
During the deposition, Riel said she did not think about her participation in the mailer while applying for the job, nor did she think about what it would mean to work with O’Connor specifically.
Much of the deposition focuses on Riels background, her professional qualifications and specifically her affiliation with Councilman McKeown, Councilman Winterer and SMCLC. Riel acknowledges supporting McKeown’s past runs for council, knowing Winterer socially and having contributed financially to the SMCLS mailer critical of O’Connor. She also acknowledges those facts were not part of her job application.
Reil said “I thought that what was relevant was that I was – I was a longtime resident, that I was the volunteer chair of the neighborhood association so that I understood the resident point of view, if you will, and that I knew how to work with residents and that I was also concerned about the community, engaged as a volunteer with my work with the commission on the status of women.”
When pressed as to her thoughts on the relevancy of her past political activities, Riel said she wasn’t in the habit of discussing politics at job interviews. She did reiterate that she felt she could act as the ambassador for the city and when asked if she felt she could present in a very favorable light whatever position the city council took she said “sure.”
According to Riel’s testimony, the process was upsetting and suspicious.
“I was very torn up about this,” she said. “I was very upset all weekend. I was depressed. I was upset. I was angry. I felt like something didn’t smell right.
She said the tone of the initial call between her and Gould was angry.
“He was very angry and not really allow me to finish many of my sentences, and clearly I felt that he didn’t want to hear what I had to say…”
She said his concerns about her objectivity were unfounded.
“It didn’t add up, it just didn’t pass the smell test and it didn’t seem – it didn’t seem right to me. It didn’t seem right that that it would impinge on the job that I could do for the City and that I know was required of me.”
When questioned about her response to having the job offer rescinded, she said, “I think that my objective was to portray exactly what the city of Santa Monica did when they fired me for political reasons and that I did nothing wrong and that I strongly disagreed with their actions.”
During her deposition O’Connor expanded on the statements made by email saying city employees, including those who work for the city manager, have an ethical responsibility to be neutral in city politics. She said the background check failed to adhere to that neutrality goal by overlooking Riel’s past political action and that the hiring was not up to the standards of the professional organizations affiliated with city government.
She said the purpose of her communication with Gould was not to advocate for firing Riel.
“The purpose of my emails were to get some – to make sure that I could have some – to have someone available to help me other than Elizabeth. That’s all I wanted.”
O’Connor said she has no control over the decision to hire or fire an employee but stood by her decision to boycott working with Riel due to a lack of trust.
SMCLC’s email calls O’Connor’s involvement in the process a serious matter.
“Under our City Charter form of government, no matter how much a councilmember disagrees with a city manager, they cannot cross the inviolate line that gives the city manager exclusive, sole power in hiring and firing decisions. Nor can they secretly and privately pressure the city manager, as was done here. A councilmember’s only legitimate recourse is to seek a review of the city manager in a council session,” they said.
The group is calling for a full investigation into the matter.
“It’s also important for our new City Manager and the City Council to review what happened here in order to ensure that such prohibited interference is not allowed to happen again,” they said.
In a message left for the Daily Press, O’Connor said SMCLC has a history of attacking her over many issues.
“They attack me always so this is more of the same,” she said.