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Santa Monica Sued for Hiring and Firing Information Officer

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By Daniel Larios
Staff Writer

June 19, 2014 – Elizabeth Riel, whose hiring as Santa Monica’s new communications chief was rescinded after her political activism was brought to light,  sued the City Wednesday for allegedly violating her first amendment rights.

The lawsuit filed in Federal Court alleges that the City and City Manager Rod Gould admitted that Riel was terminated for writing a newspaper column and contributing to a political mailer eight years ago..

In an April 2006 column, Riel criticized the City’s failure to release public documents concerning its relations with developers.  Five months later, she contributed $1,000 to a mailer from the slow-growth group Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) charging that then Council member Pam O’Connor, who is now the mayor, had sold out to developers.

Riel also contributed $250 to Council member Kevin McKeown’s 2006 re-election campaign and was pictured with him on a campaign flyer. The information first appeared in a Lookout article published shortly before the 2006 council race. ("O'Connor Targeted by Coalition; Hit Piece Exposes Rift Within SMRR," October 30, 2006)

The lawsuit alleges that less than two weeks before Riel was to begin her new job, Gould discovered these activities and allegedly berated her for not disclosing both the column and contributions during the interview process.

Gould allegedly called Riel over the Memorial Day holiday and allegedly “told her that he was terminating her employment contract because the situation created ‘severe political problems,’” according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges that Gould “told Riel that although her column was written and her SMCLC contribution was made ‘eight years ago, there are the same City Councilmembers, the same interest groups and the same players on the field,’ using words to that effect.

“Gould told Riel that she would be viewed as being aligned with some City Councilmembers and not others,” according to the lawsuit.

Gould allegedly asked Riel to agree to a mutual statement voluntarily withdrawing from the position, the lawsuit states. 

Riel declined to resign during the phone call, declined to “publicly announce that she had voluntarily relinquished the Communications and Public Affairs Officer position,” and refused to withdraw from her new position, according to the lawsuit.

“The First Amendment guarantee of free speech means that government cannot retaliate against citizens because they have expressed their opinions on matters of public concern,” Riel’s attorney Steven Kaplan wrote in a statement Wednesday.

“Gould and the City are now illegally placing a political litmus test on public employment,” he wrote. “They might as well have said in the job advertisement: ‘citizens who have expressed political opinions that we don’t like should not bother applying for the job.’”

The lawsuit is seeking compensatory damages of an unspecified amount against the City and Gould, stating that Riel “suffered severe psychological damages in the form of emotional distress, anxiety and depression.”

The lawsuit also seeks injunctive relief that prevents the City from future retaliations against Riel or other job applicants for “legitimate, lawful First Amendment activities in which they engaged prior to applying for City employment.”

“I love Santa Monica –my husband and I have been raising our children here –and I am incredibly disappointed to be prevented from working for my hometown,” Riel said.

“I continue to believe in the importance of involved citizenship, and I hope the action the City of Santa Monica has taken against me doesn’t discourage other Californians from getting involved in and serving their own communities.”
The Lookout was the first news outlet to report that Riel’s contract had been rescinded. (“Offer Rescinded to Political Activist for Santa Monica’s Top Communications Job,” May 29, 2014)

City officials said they could not comment on any pending litigation. 

At its June 10 meeting,  the City Council went into a closed session to evaluate Gould during its in response to the allegations made by Riel against Gould and the City. (“Santa Monica Hire-Fire Episode Flares,” June 11, 2014)

A longtime Santa Monica resident, Riel served as the chair of the North of Montanan Neighborhood Association.

She has been involved in communications for various political and social campaigns through the years, including the federal lawsuit to overturn California’s voter-approved gay marriage ban.

Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. Vice President Debbie Lee is scheduled to assume the post of Public Information Chief next month.

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