Attorney: New Interim City Attorney Susan Cola. Courtesy photo

Nearly two years since Santa Monica last had a permanent city attorney, a third interim attorney, Susan Cola, has been tapped to fill the position. 

City Council members have met ten times in closed session to discuss the hiring of a permanent city attorney and have yet to reach a consensus on who should fill the role. 

Cola is the current Senior Special Projects Deputy City Attorney and will step into the interim city attorney position on April 6, 2022 as current Interim City Attorney Joseph Lawrence’s last day is April 5. Cola joined the City in 2012 and has over 25 years of municipal law experience specializing in land use, public finance, real estate, public works contracting, economic development and affordable housing.

“I’m thrilled Susan Cola is on board; I’m frustrated we haven’t made a choice,” said Mayor Sue Himmelrich. 

The permanent position has been empty since April 18, 2020, when City Attorney Lane Dilg became Interim City Manager following the resignation of former City Manager Rick Cole. Longtime City lawyer George Cardona became interim city attorney in April 2020 and another longtime attorney with the City, Joseph Lawrence, came out of retirement to step into the interim position in October 2021 when Cardona departed. 

The city attorney position is not alone in experiencing a high turnover rate. Over the course of the pandemic there have been leadership departures by the city manager, fire chief, police chief, library director, transportation chief and chief communications officer.

In addition to frustration with the time it has taken to fill the position permanently, the city attorney search has been tainted by accusations of councilmember information leaks regarding the names of candidates. 

In a Feb. 10 Council meeting, Councilmember Gleam Davis proposed opening an investigation into these leaks and prior leaks pertaining to the city manager search. While the idea initially had a slim 4-3 majority of councilmember support, it was subsequently shot down on Feb. 22 when Councilmember Lana Negrete shifted her vote to opposing the investigation citing concerns that it would further exacerbate councilmember divisions and distract from the city attorney search. 

When it comes to the ideal qualifications in a city attorney, Mayor Himmelrich said she was looking for someone experienced in dealing with large law departments in some form of government. As a seasoned attorney herself, she said necessary traits for the trade include patience, excellent attention to detail and the ability to work well with others. Specifically for the Santa Monica position, she said the attorney needs to have a thick skin. 

Councilmember Phil Brock is seeking a city attorney who can take a fresh look at the department and find areas for downsizing and cost savings. 

“I want a city attorney who will be fair to all council members and residents while fully enforcing the laws of our city without bias. I expect the city attorney to fully evaluate the personnel needs of the office and conserve our precious taxpayer dollars. I want the city attorney’s office, which is abnormally large for a city our size, to actively look at divisions that can be downsized. Lastly, The person selected must be a strong defender of the residents and municipal government of Santa Monica,” said Brock. 

Council will continue discussing the search for a permanent city attorney during a closed session meeting on March 25.