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Santa Monica Activists Seek Probe of Councilmember’s Role in Employee Firing

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Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica

By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

September 1, 2015 -- A Santa Monica activist organization Monday asked for two separate investigations into its allegations that Councilmember Pam O’Connor illegally used her position to maneuver the abrupt firing last year of a communications director who had politically tangled with her eight years earlier.

The Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) is asking that both the City Attorney’s Office and the City Council conduct independent investigations into O’Connor’s role in the controversy surrounding Elizabeth Riel, whose job offer was rescinded shortly before she was scheduled to start in her new post.

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

On Monday, O’Connor dismissed the Coalition’s requests as politically motivated, characterizing the organization as a longtime opponent of hers.

“They’ve got a bee in their bonnet against me. I don’t know why,” O’Connor said of the group.  “But this is what happens when you don’t kowtow to them. They go after you. If you’re an independent person, this is what happens to you.”

However, O’Connor said she has no objections to the two investigations the Coalition requested.

“Anybody can do any investigation they want,” she said. “Nothing illegal was done.”

Chief Deputy City Attorney Jeanette Schachtner said there would be no comment on the SMCLC request until City Attorney Marsha Moutrie returns from vacation Wednesday.

The group is asking Moutrie’s office to investigate whether O’Connor violated the City Charter, which prohibits any city council member from interfering in the City Manager’s hiring and firing decisions.

Diana Gordon, one of the Coalition’s leaders, said a City Council investigation is also needed to determine “how the City got this far down the road,” so that it can establish policies and procedures that could prevent a similar controversy in the future.

By the time costs for outside counsel are added, the Riel litigation bill is probably closer to $1 million – the expensive outcome of a “political tantrum” by O’Connor, Gordon said.

“I think she believes as a politician that she is above scrutiny,” Gordon said. “But we are entitled to call out our politicians when they engage in misdeeds. That is our job.  That is what a democracy does.”

The SMCLC’s call for City-led investigations into O’Connor comes on the heels of its own probe into the matter, which used emails and court testimony to allegedly show the councilwoman had “relentlessly” campaigned behind the scenes against Riel.

O’Connor, who was mayor at the time, was upset and wanted to fire Riel before she could start, after learning that she had contributed to a 2006 SMCLC mailer that attacked O’Connor as “willing to sell Santa Monica out to developers.”

At one point, O’Connor sent nine private emails to then-City Manager Rod Gould over a 36-hour period,” the SMCLC investigation found. The emails reportedly included “escalating threats and hostility” and eventually led Gould to offer to resign.

“I do not and will not trust her,” one of the O’Connor emails about Riel said, according to SMCLC’s investigation.   “I will not work with her… she attacked me directly by putting money into a hit piece,” the group reported her saying.

O’Connor said Monday that she was only expressing opinions to Gould at the time, and that, as a council member, she acted within her rights. Her concerns alone could not be blamed for the hiring and firing of Riel, she said.

“I did not, and do not now, have the power to hire and fire,” she said.

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