The Santa Monica City Council has hired an attorney to review best practices for interactions between council and staff.
The Council authorized hiring an independent advisor to address concerns about the way the city has handled ethics complaints related to the Oaks Initiative and the hiring/firing of Elizabeth Riel. In both cases, local advocates have argued the City’s actions have eroded public trust and potentially violated standards of behavior.
“While Santa Monica has not been embroiled in widespread scandals or reports of malfeasance, this action was taken in the context of specific concerns that the Council believes should be addressed in pursuit of transparency, accountability, and public trust and confidence in City governance,” the staff report states.
Six individuals/firms expressed interest in the position and City Manager Rick Cole said their experience could be grouped into two categories: lawyers with experience analyzing past actions or government experts with a background in implementing best practices.
Members of the public strongly supported hiring a law firm or lawyer to conduct the review and said a subject matter expert could be brought into the process after a complete understanding of the past incidents had been established.
Diana Gordon spoke on behalf of the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC).
“The situation offers a unique opportunity through fact finding review to transform significant resident distrust into public confidence,” she said. “Public confidence can only be restored with transparency and openness. That means a thorough and independent assessment of the city’s actions around the Riel firing and how it has dealt with the enforcement of Oaks.”
SMCLC has long alleged wrongdoing in the Riel case (Riel had a job offer revoked and later won a lawsuit against the city) and said it is necessary to establish a firm understanding of past events before moving forward.
“Finding out what happened is critical to figuring out what to do to keep these problems from reoccurring,” said Gordon. “You cannot look forward and make changes to a current system without analyzing and understanding what has already occurred and any serious problems that are revealed.”
Gordon said the entire process was necessary to put any potential errors in context.
“You also need to do this to uphold and support the great majority of those in city hall who abide by the rules and transparent government,” she said.
The Transparency Project is the author of Oaks complaints against Councilwoman Pam O’Connor. Projectmember Mary Marlow said the City had an obligation to fix its process.
“It is the city’s job to enforce our laws, no resident should have to file an expensive lawsuit because the city will not address enforcement of a law voted in place by over 60 percent of the electorate in the year 2000,” she said referring to the adoption of the Oaks Initiative that established anti-corruption laws in Santa Monica.
She said an independent advisor was needed to investigate, diagnose, report and recommend solutions to the city’s enforcement problem.
Council chose attorney John Hueston of Newport Beach.
Hueston is a former division chief and assistant U.S. attorney. In his application he said he had investigated Enron as part of a county taskforce, worked on corruption cases for the county of San Bernardino that resulted in criminal prosecutions, and has worked for multiple other municipal agencies.
“The City of Santa Monica has been questioned on multiple levels regarding the circumstances of a recent termination decision. Although the related civil lawsuit is settled, the City Council has resolved to assess whether and to what degree to improve its governance practices. This is precisely the type of problem that I have repeatedly and successfully addressed in both my public and private sector careers,” he said.
City Manager Rick Cole said the council should give their advisor as much room as possible to conduct the review. While the precise scope of work, and therefore budget, are still under discussion, Cole said council shouldn’t try to micromanage the project.
“You want to have them do their job based on their credentials, their track record and their judicious temperament to not turn this either into an endless Benghazi fishing expedition nor conduct a whitewash,” said Cole
Council approved the hiring of Hueston by a 6-1 vote. Councilman Terry O’Day was the lone “no” vote and questioned what would be accomplished by a review of already public documents. He called the process a waste of money, waste of time and unlikely to satisfy the individuals who are calling for an investigation.
“I appreciate the council’s interest here,” he said. “It just sounds to me like we’re not going to have any new information. Everything that is currently available is available to the public.”