How about the sorry spectacle of councilmember Pam O’Connor’s role in the illegal firing last year of a newly hired Elizabeth Riel as the head of City Hall’s communications and public relations?
Almost as soon as she was hired, Riel was discharged by then City Manager Rod Gould. Word quickly circulated that then Mayor O’Connor had demanded the action because Riel had supported her chief political rival Kevin McKeown and contributed financially to a 2006 Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) anti-O’Connor campaign flyer.
Riel in turn sued City Hall (and Gould) claiming her First Amendment rights and her employment contract were violated. Riel settled with the city for $710,000. This cost taxpayers about one million dollars, including outside counsel and other expenses.
SMCLC obtained documents that reveal an intense campaign by O’Connor to force Riel’s firing. An email exchange from May 22 to May 24, 2014 among O’Connor, Gould and other senior staff is particularly revealing. They’re available on www.smclc.net.
The emails show an increasingly agitated O’Connor cranking up the pressure to dismiss Riel and Gould resisting by telling her that they “made the right choice.” He urged her to give Riel “a chance to prove herself.” He also told McKeown he had no problem with Riel supporting him in his 2006 election run.
Over 36 hours, O’Connor escalated her threats. “I do not and will not trust her. I will not work with her … She attacked me directly by putting money into a hit piece … She is a supporter of Kevin.” Remember, the 2014 election was six months away and O’Connor was planning to run, again. The attacks continued. “This is the best practice of City a Mangers!!! (sic) Hire people who are political enemies of people elected to your Council?”
In another email: “… I am being attacked from both outside City Hall and from within City Hall.” O’Connor threatened to go to the press and rally opposition to Riel “being in this position.”
Gould was becoming unnerved at this point. He responded, “You are not under attack from City Hall. We all view you with the greatest respect and admiration…” An exasperated Gould even offered to resign. Instead, after being advised by city attorney Marcia Moutrie, former deputy city manager Kate Vernez and assistant city manager Elaine Polachek, he buckled under and informed O’Connor he was “moving toward a decision to retract the job offer.” Gould then fired Riel days before she was to begin work.
SMCLC’s chair, Diana Gordon states, “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…”
SMCLC has asked City Hall to determine whether O’Connor’s actions resulted in 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.
That section says, “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.”
SMCLC also asked City Council to independently conduct a full, public review into all the facts surrounding Ms. Riel’s firing and to make appropriate findings as to both O’Connor’s and senior staff’s role. It also asked City Hall to establish procedures to prevent future political interference hiring and firing decisions for city employees.
There are other huge issues arising from O’Connor’s actions. It appears that O’Connor violated charter section 610 with the assistance of other individuals. Emails reveal troublesome exchanges between Gould, Vernez and Polachek and references to advice from Moutrie. The big question is whether they all conspired to deny Riel her rights and also violate the City Charter.
Did outside counsel Terry Bird (who represented both the city and Gould) together with Moutrie, intentionally fail to disclose actions by O’Connor, Gould, Moutrie, Vernez and Polacheck that could have led to a claim for reimbursement of the city’s million dollar payout?
Mayor McKeown confirmed that council would review the matter. That’s not enough. I suggest that the council approve a full-scale investigation of the firing incident by an independent law firm or neutral investigative agency. Disciplinary action against current staff, a lawsuit to recover the million dollars, ethics referrals and section 610 criminal sanctions must all be on the table.
There is a growing call for O’Connor to resign or be recalled. She’ll never resign. In fact, she’s already claiming that this whole magilla is “politically motivated.” A recall is a difficult undertaking. With the political clout of her allies and financial resources of the hotel and developer interest that’ve staked her for more than two decades, she’d probably prevail, anyway.
I predict nothing will come of any of this. The most effective plan is to isolate her.
Next year, two of O’Connor’s pro-development colleagues Terry O’Day and Gleam Davis are up for reelection. If they’re unseated and replaced by two good honest, slow-growth candidates, O’Connor will be marginalized – alone and powerless. She’ll still do the bidding for her developer, hotel and special interest friends until 2018 when her term expires and she’s voted out of office. But, her vote won’t matter. We win!
Bill can be reached at email@example.com