Councilwoman Pam O’Connor is unlikely to face any formal reprimand for her role in the Elizabeth Riel case following Council discussions of the issue at their April 26 meeting.
The Council had the opportunity to discuss and comment on a recently released ethics report on Tuesday night. While several individual members took the opportunity to criticize O’Connor’s actions, no one initiated a formal censure process and several members seemed to expressly reject formal punishment.
Attorney John Hueston presented his findings pursuant to the firing of Elizabeth Riel and city enforcement of its anti-corruption laws known as the Oaks Initiative. He said the facts showed a chain of emails between O’Connor and then City Manger Rod Gould violated a section of the city charter that prohibits councilmembers from exerting indirect influence over hiring decisions. The report made no mention of how the council should respond to that violation and when asked about possible repercussions, Hueston declined to provide an opinion.
“That’s beyond my pay grade, whether you should take an action or not,” he said. “That’s beyond the scope of what I was asked to do.”
Hueston said there was clear indication of a violation but it was up to the Council to decide how to proceed.
Like most municipal governments, the Santa Monica Council has no authority to impeach a sitting member or force any kind of resignation. As an agency that utilizes a set of rules known as Robert’s Rules of Order, there’s a process available for a non-binding, advisory procedure known as censure, but on Tuesday, councilmembers chose to voice their concerns as individual statements.
Councilman Kevin McKeown said he was disappointed in what happened, the process leading up to the report, and what he described as a lack of honesty in communicating the actions surrounding the Riel case to the public. However, he said the appropriate response was to voice his opinion and then focus on future improvements.
“This city council’s role is not, and never has been, punitive, that’s a power that the city charter does not grants us,” he said. “All we can do is hope make it better and to regain the public trust which is really important to me and unfortunately, acts of poor judgment, whether we can prosecute them or not, reflect on the council as a whole and compromise the public trust in this city council and we have to find our role in commenting on that that says these acts of poor judgment are not our acts as a body, that we are not happy about them, and we’re especially not happy on how they’ve affected our ability to govern as a city council. And Councilmember O’Connor, it’s really a shame that you’ve tainted what should have been your proud role in bringing light rail to town in a couple of weeks with your acts of poor judgment. This is a tough time for the city, I know its a tough time for you, I just have to say I’m disappointed.”
Councilwoman Sue Himmelrich said the council had an obligation to comment on O’Connor’s actions. Himmelrich said she felt there was an ongoing lack of truth regarding the Riel case.
“I do feel like it was a direct campaign to have this woman fired before she even had a chance to show whether she could do the job,” she said. “I agree that the federal court did say that even a first grader would know this was a violation of her federal rights and I can only hope that we never see anything like that again on this dais and that’s my hope and I do wish we had a little more truth here.”
Mayor Tony Vazquez said the council wasn’t privy to the emails in question prior to Riel filing a lawsuit and more troubling for him, he said he was told such communication didn’t exist. He said his trust in O’Connor had been damaged but he felt pursuing a formal censure would damage the council’s ability to move forward with the valuable work ahead of them.
“I’m confidant that listening to our colleagues, that we’re all interested in learning from this moving forward and making some solid recommendations,” he said.
Mayor Pro Tem Ted Winterer said O’Connor’s behavior undermined the council’s overall efforts to gain the public’s trust. He said strengthening the Oaks rules would complement recent actions on regulating lobbyists, establishing an audit committee and populating the open data portal.
“I’m glad we’re moving forward on this,” he said. “I do also have to say Councilmember O’Connor, I’m disappointed in some of the things that have happened in the last few years.”
O’Connor limited her comments to a brief statement.
“I do want the community to know that I understand that city hiring decisions are made by the city manager and the staff,” she said. “That said, yes, I probably should have found a better way to express my first amendment rights in communicating to the former city manager, I think that’s clear, but it’s been a learning experience and now the matter has been settled and I hope that all of us can move forward, that we’ll move forward as a council, that we’ll move forward as a city in discussing the important policy decisions before us as a community.”
There were no objections to the reports recommendations to revise, strengthen and enforce the Oaks Initiative. Council ended the night with a motion to adopt the reports recommendations, incorporate additional recommendations made by the public that night and direct the City Attorney’s office to begin immediate enforcement though it’s Criminal Division.