Santa Monica City Hall (File photo)

Councilman Kevin McKeown faced an unusual foe last when he attempted to act on employee accountability and transparency at last week’s council meeting — City Hall’s previous efforts to ensure accountability and transparency.

At the Dec. 8 meeting, former Mayor McKeown asked the council to consider his request that staff prepare an ordinance clarifying and implementing the Oaks Initiative prohibition against public officials accepting employment from city contractors. However, the quicker-than-expected start of work by an independent ethics advisor sapped support for McKeown’s proposal.

“This is about what’s called a revolving door,” McKeown said. “It’s a situation where somebody has employment where they have a working relationship with a company and where there is at least a potential that, that public connection will turn into private benefit if we don’t rule against it.”

McKeown acknowledged the City is currently working with an outside consultant, former division chief and assistant U.S. attorney John Hueston, on issues of transparency, the Oaks Initiative, campaign finance reform and the proper relationship of council to the city manager. At the time of his request, McKeown said the timeline for approving Hueston’s scope of work was unknown and regardless, McKeown said the revolving door aspect was not directly considered when council first hired Hueston.

“And the reason for that was there was litigation on that issue under way with the situation that occurred here in the City and we wanted to let that be adjudicated if that was going to happen. It did not happen. It ended up being settled without their being a court ruling,” McKeown said, referring to the settlement between former city manager Rod Gould and the Santa Monica Transparency Project.

“So now I feel it’s appropriate that we add to the direction that we’re giving our consultant that they work with staff to consider codifying some sort of prohibition regarding revolving door activities. The Oaks Initiative touches on that but it is not significantly specific.”

During the discussion, City Manager Rick Cole said Hueston’s contract and scope of work would be up for discussion the following week and several councilmembers said any further discussion should be tabled pending review of Hueston’s proposal.

“I like the idea that we appointed somebody, say ‘Go at it,’ and step back,” Councilwoman Sue Himmelrich said. “I think we’ve given direction and don’t understand why we are emphasizing one point over another as opposed to letting him evaluate and give his best take on it. I thought our goal here was not to give him guidance so we were not telling him where to end up in the long run.”

City Attorney Marsha Moutrie said that if directed by council, her department could provide guidance on additional ordinances that might support the existing provisions of the City Charter specific to ethics.

“You could adopt a local ordinance that’s stricter than Oaks is, in fact there might be good reasons to do that, the important thing from our legal perspective is that whatever prohibitions you adopt on any individual rights, including the right to seek employment, that they be crystal clear and this could be a good opportunity to do that,” she said.

Local government watchdog and transparency advocate Mary Marlow said she was puzzled by the timing of the Dec. 8 discussion and said nothing should be done until Hueston’s report, or at least the scope of work, had been approved.

McKeown, backed by Councilman Ted Winterer, said some action would be appropriate to clarify the current expectations of staff.

“By acting tonight the council would make clear to all existing staff in the city what our expectations and the community expectations are,” said McKeown. “Even before we codify it into an ordinance, we’d have a statement on the record from this council about expectations.”

Ultimately, council unanimously settled on direction to staff that the scope of work by Hueston include specifically a timely analysis of the need for the clarification of issues raised, but not resolved, by the recent transparency of litigation and further direct that council convey to staff that their expectation in the mean time is that the Oaks Provision should apply to all city employees of division head status or above.

However, Councilwoman Gleam Davis took issue with the wording.

“Whether we call it an ordinance or not, if we say, ‘This is what the council’s expectations are,’ then it’s effectively operating as a constraint on people,” Davis said. “And I think we better be very clear on what the legal parameters of that constraint are before we do it.”