Firing an employee is usually the end of an employment saga, but in Santa Monica, it’s just the beginning.
The case of Elizabeth Riel, a Santa Monica resident who was fired before her first day of work with the city, continues to occupy the city’s political watchers as Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) has officially filed a complaint over the incident that could result in criminal charges.
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was offered the position of Communications and Public Affairs Officer in 2014, however, then City Manager Rod Gould rescinded the offer the next month for what was described as “personnel reasons.” Riel sued and the city settled for $710,000. Critics contend the cost was actually closer to or above $1,000,000 when the city’s legal fees are factored in.
Gould has since retired.
Court documents related to the lawsuit show that then Mayor Pam O’Connor was upset with Riel’s hiring and that she sent several emails to Gould expressing her distrust and dislike of Riel. Riel was a political supporter of current Mayor Kevin McKeown, had contributed to a mailer critical of O’Connor and written commentaries for the Daily Press also criticizing O’Connor’s positions.
In his deposition, Gould cited Riel’s past political activity as the reason he withdrew the job offer and said Riel should have been more forthcoming about her past actions during her job interview.
SMCLC issued a statement saying O’Connor’s actions during the case amount to a violation of the city charter. The official complaint asks for two results.
“First, to determine whether councilmember Pam O’Connor’s actions led to the firing of Elizabeth Riel by the City Manager in violation of Section 610 of the City Charter, and, if so, to initiate appropriate legal action,” said SMCLC’s statement. “Second, for the City Council to independently conduct a full, public review into all of the facts surrounding Ms. Riel’s firing, to make appropriate findings as to councilmember O’Connor and senior staff’s role in Ms. Riel’s firing, and for the City to establish additional procedures to prevent future political interference in City employee hiring and firing decisions.”
According to the city charter “Neither the City Council nor any of its members shall order or request directly or indirectly the appointment of any person to an office or employment or the removal of any person therefrom, by the City Manager, or by any of the department heads in the administrative service of the City.”
Mayor McKeown issued a statement saying he would ask for more information.
“Revisiting the inherent propriety of Elizabeth Riel’s termination is unnecessary,” he said. “That was resolved by the settlement. The released documents have generated an allegation regarding compliance with the City Charter, which we can and must consider. I have today asked that the full documents, not just excerpts, be provided to the City Council. If Charter compliance is properly enforced or directed by the City Council itself, that will require us to meet as a body to make decisions. This week when the City Attorney returns I have scheduled a meeting with her, the City Manager and the City Clerk to explore options.”
Diana Gordon, SMCLC co-chair, said it was important to pursue complaints against high level staff given the city’s willingness to issue citations to vendors illegally selling fruit or ticket landscapers who use a leaf-blower.
“No-one holds the highest officials in city government responsible for following our laws,” she said. “What I think is reprehensible here is to do nothing.”
O’Connor has called the SMCLC investigation a politically motivated attack by longtime opponents.