A recently released ethics report will take center stage at City Council next week.
City Hall received the report by attorney John Hueston this week and the April 26 meeting will be the first opportunity for councilmembers to publicly comment on the findings/recommendations.
Hueston was hired to examine two related issues, the hiring/firing of Elizabeth Riel and the City’s lack of enforcement on anti-corruption statutes.
Riel was offered a position as communications manager with the City in 2014 but then City Manager Rod Gould rescinded the offer following complaints by Councilwoman Pam O’Connor.
The report cites “lapses in judgment” in connection with the Riel situation. Its recommendations include better awareness of the limits placed on council for hiring decisions, training staff to keep emails on city owned servers, adopting an interview panel process for department head position, equalizing information shared between the city manager and councilmembers, and establishing what positions require “political neutrality” as a qualification.
One point of investigation is an email chain between O’Connor and Gould in which O’Connor criticizes the decision to hire Riel. O’Connor told Hueston the emails were meant to be informative and simply state her opinion, a claim the investigators said was not credible given their intensity and content.
The authors say the emails are threatening, influenced Gould’s decision and that, while O’Connor made no overt requests to fire Riel, her actions amounted to an indirect attempt to meddle.
“At best, Ms. O’Connor showed bad judgment in wording her e-mails in a way that had the foreseeable potential of influencing the City Manager’s hiring decision. At worst, Ms. O’Connor consciously and intentionally attempted to influence the City Manager’s hiring decision. In either case, Ms. O’Connor showed a failure to understand the limitations of her role as a councilmember in Santa Monica city government,” said the report.
Councilwoman O’Connor said she hasn’t read the report and was not concerned with what she described as one person’s opinion about one event.
“Maybe they characterize it as a mistake. Everyone makes them and we learn and grow from them. So that’s why I don’t have angst,” O’Connor said.
Councilman Kevin McKeown is one of two individuals mentioned by name in the investigation as having requested, and been denied, additional information about the Riel case.
“We will no doubt strengthen our campaign finance laws, a task I anticipate with relish, and tighten our internal policies on hiring and firing,” he said of the findings. “In the Riel matter, most deeply disappointing is the documented disparity between the revealed emails and what was said at the time by Councilmember O’Connor to the Daily Press, the Council, and the public.”
Councilman Ted Winterer is the second councilmember specifically mentioned in the report as having been unable to get satisfactory answers from Gould. Winterer said the overall report is a thorough examination of the issues and an important step forward for the city.
In regards to the specific issue involving Winterer and McKeown, the report authors say the best practice is for the city manager to disclose information equally to all councilmembers.
“Clearly that’s a bit challenging to enforce through statutory means, but at least the report shines a bright light on the issue for our current and future city managers,” Winterer said.
He said he has not communicated with any other councilmembers about the report and is therefore unable to speculate on what might happen at the upcoming meeting, but he said he is interested in recommendations regarding the city’s anti-corruption laws.
“It’s about time we starting more thoroughly enforcing the Oaks Initiative, so I hope we will enhance our training for public officials, implement the recommendation to use the criminal division of the city attorney’s office to address complaints of violations and put before the voters remedies to address the initiative’s infirmities,” he said.
In regards to the Oaks Initiative, the report calls for council action to clarify the law, establish an in-house attorney or hire a special prosecutor to pursue complaints, pass a resolution with clear guidelines for implementation and improve access to information about the rules.
The report, available online at www.smgov.net/Departments/CMO/IndependentReview.aspx, was complied from interviews and examination of written documents.
Interviews were conducted with City Manager Rick Cole, Deputy City Manager Danielle Noble, Assistant City Manager Elaine Polachek, Director of Housing and Economic Development Andy Agle, Communications and Public Affairs Officer Debbie Lee, Director of Human Resources Donna Peter, Office Manager in the City Manager’s Office Sandra Santiago, City Attorney Marsha Moutrie, Assistant City Attorney Joseph Lawrence, Chief Deputy City Attorney in the Criminal Division Terry White, Former City Manager Rodney Gould, Former Councilmember Robert Holbrook, Former Deputy City Manager Kate Vernez, Deputy City Manager in Beverly Hills Cheryl Friedling and Councilmembers Gleam Davis, Sue Himmelrich, Kevin McKeown, Pamela O’Connor, Terry O’Day, Tony Vazquez and Ted Winterer.
Riel was contacted for an interview but requested payment for her attorneys, consulting fees for the time spent interviewing and travel expense. According to the report, all interviews were voluntary and unpaid so the team utilized deposition transcripts rather than a live interview.
In addition to court documents, written materials used in the report included Oaks Initiative complaints, relevant documents from other California jurisdictions, including those that have adopted the Oaks rules, and miscellaneous documents provided by interviewees and the community.
The City Council will meet Tuesday, April 26 at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall, 1685 Main St.