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Santa Monica Council member Fought to Oust City Spokeswoman, Group Contends

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica

By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

August 26, 2015 -- The costly political saga of a communications director hired by the City of Santa Monica and quickly fired took another turn Tuesday.

After launching its own investigation into the debacle, the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) announced that it had collected emails and other information that showed Council member O’Connor “relentlessly” applied pressure behind the scenes to get Elizabeth Riel fired less than a month after she was hired last year.

O’Connor, who was mayor at the time, was upset and wanted to fire Riel because she donated to a 2006 SMCLC mailer that attacked O’Connor for “willing to sell Santa Monica out to developers.”

O’Connor has said she did not apply pressure to rescind the hiring of Riel, who sued the City and received more than $700,000 in a  settlement approved by the Council last month.

But the SMCLC says she was extremely involved in Riel’s termination – a violation of the City’s charter, which prohibits any city council member from interfering in the City Manager’s hiring and firing decisions.

Releasing findings of its probe on its website, SMCLC contends that days before Riel was due to report to work, O’Connor began a “relentless campaign against her, sending nine private emails to then-City Manager Rod Gould over a 36-hour period.”

The emails included “escalating threats and hostility -- eventually questioning Mr. Gould’s competency,” the SMCLC said. “The barrage was so intense that at one point Mr. Gould offered to resign.”

“Initially, Gould and his top staff resisted O’Connor, recognizing in internal emails that they had made “the right decision” and “the right choice” in hiring Riel. Gould asked O’Connor to “give her (Riel) a chance to prove herself,” the group said.

“But O’Connor was unmoved, responding: “I do not and will not trust her. I will not work with her… she attacked me directly by putting money into a hit piece… She is a supporter of Kevin (McKeown),” the group's posting said.

O’Connor did not return calls for comment.  A representative of SMCLC also could not be reached.

After her firing, Riel filed suit in federal court against the City alleging her First Amendment rights had been violated. The City Council voted to settle the litigation for $710,000 on July 14.

It was after the settlement that the SMCLC decided to open its own investigation.

In its findings, the SMCLC says O’Connor went after Gould again and again.

“This is the best practice of City a Mangers!!! (sic),” the organization quotes one of her emails as saying. “Hire people who are political enemies of people elected to your Council?”

“I am being attacked from both outside City Hall and from within City Hall,” another one of her emails reportedly said. “And I am curious about Best Practices of City Management if this is one of them.”

O'Connor sent an email to Gould threatening to go to the media and in another one warned that she’ll “be sharing this with others in the community” to rally opposition to Riel “being in this position,” the group’s website says.

The SMCLC said Gould testified that he was “very close with Mayor O’Connor” and was  worried he had angered her.

“Pam, I need you to know I would never knowingly do anything to hurt you… I am depressed over this,” the organization quotes him as saying.

“Ultimately, Gould buckled to O’Connor, writing that he was 'moving toward a decision to retract the job offer,'” according to the organization’s findings.

Riel’s contribution to current Mayor McKeown’s 2006 re-election campaign and involvement in the mailer attacking O’Connor 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)

Gould, who has retired from the City Manager post, was dropped from the suit earlier this year.

The communications position subsequently went to Debbie Lee, who had served as vice president for Downtown Santa Monica, Inc.

SMCLC officials said the group will ask the City for a full investigation to determine of O'Connor violated the City Charter.

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