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Santa Monica Turns to Downtown for New Public Information Chief

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By Jonathan Friedman
Associate Editor

June 4, 2014 -- A week after rescinding a hiring for its top communications officer possibly due to political reasons, Santa Monica has tapped Downtown’s top marketing official for the highly visible post.

Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. Vice President Debbie Lee, who currently oversees marketing, special programs and community involvement, will assume the post next month, City officials announced Tuesday.

Prior to joining Downtown Santa Monica, Lee was the vice president of business development for the Santa Monica Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“Debbie Lee has over 15 years of experience working with partner organizations in Santa Monica,” said City Manager Rod Gould. “She is known for her communication, facilitation and interpersonal skills. She will add value on day one, and … she works well with all in our community.”

Lee will receive an annual salary of $155,784 in the newly created role of communications and public affairs officer. Her duties will include many of those currently assigned to Deputy City Manager Kate Vernez, who is retiring this summer.

Lee will oversee an approximately $2.2 million budget that includes public information, community relations and CityTV, officials said.

“Santa Monica is a dynamic and beloved city, and it’s people that make this place great,” said Lee. “I’ve been fortunate to spend the majority of my career in Santa Monica, and I look forward to keeping the community engaged and informed on the efforts of the City of Santa Monica.”

Political activist and communications veteran Elizabeth Riel had previously been hired for the job. But a little more than two weeks after announcing her hiring, Gould told The Lookout he had rescinded the offer.

Gould declined to give a reason for his decision, but sources say he had recently learned that Riel had been involved in political activity in Santa Monica.

Riel’s activities included being one those behind the funding of a campaign to unseat Mayor Pam O’Connor when she was running for a fourth term on the City Council in 2006. Also that year, she had financially supported the campaign of O’Connor’s foe Councilmember Kevin McKeown, and her picture appeared on a mailer in support of him.

In addition, Riel had served as president of the North of Montana Neighborhood Association (NOMA), which was a vocal opponent of major development in 2008.

The announcement of Lee’s hiring makes a small reference to the Riel affair, noting that the City had rescinded an offer for this job to another individual.

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