Santa Monica Observer - Community, Diversity, Sustainability and other Overused Words

City Manager Rescinds Offer to Slow Growth Advocate

 


City Manager Rod Gould’s controversial decision last week to rescind the hiring of Communications Director Elizabeth Riel, may have been due to her membership in a slow growth coalition called SMCLC. The rescission preceded her actual assumption of any job duties.

SM City Manager Rod Gould, the beneficiary of a $300,000 annual salary, the highest of any City Manager in Los Angeles County (even before you take into account astounding benefits and pension); is, naturally, defending himself. He rejects the assertion that the act was a restraint on freedom of speech.

Via Facebook and press releases, the debate on this retraction of employment, could soon advance to the council chambers. Personnel matters are ordinarily not public, and items on closed-door session that precedes next Tuesday’s meeting concern a performance review of Gould and “anticipated litigation” that could involve Ms. Riel.

Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC), a slow-growth activist group, sent the following e mail on June 2, critizing Gould for “firing” communications veteran and local activist Elizabeth Riel:

Dear Supporter of SMCLC,

Unbelievable as it sounds, our city just fired a long-time Santa Monica resident because she engaged in legal and protected political speech EIGHT YEARS BEFORE she was on the city’s payroll.

City Manager Rod Gould dismissed newly hired Elizabeth Riel because she was a supporter of Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City when we took a position in the 2006 city council race.

Elizabeth, who lives in Santa Monica with her husband and three young children, and was the former president of the North of Montana Association (“NOMA”), was hired from over 200 candidates to fill the city’s newly created position of Public Affairs and Communications Officer.

She was the most qualified candidate. That is not in dispute. As Rod Gould said when he gave her the job, “Elizabeth blends national communications and public affairs expertise with a deep understanding and commitment to Santa Monica, as a result of raising her family, consulting and volunteering in our fair city.”

Then the weekend before she was to start work, Mr. Gould fired her. He did so because of Elizabeth’s ties to SMCLC and our group’s involvement in the 2006 council election, when we truthfully shed light on the money-raising practices of Councilmember Pam O’Connor and her ties to a developer.

Like Elizabeth’s qualifications, the facts of that 2006 campaign have also never been questioned. Ms. O’Connor took money to retire her previous campaign debt from 13 high-level Macerich executives just months BEFORE she expected to vote on their massive Santa Monica Place project. SMCLC exposed this truth. No one has ever questioned its accuracy. But because Elizabeth was a supporter of ours and eight years ago dared to expose this truth, she was fired.

Rod Gould’s precipitous firing of Elizabeth is wrong and unacceptable. It violates her rights, and it was done with a complete lack of transparency.

It is an illegal act by the city manager to fire anyone based on the content of his or her political speech. Does anyone believe that Elizabeth would have been fired if she had, instead, supported Ms. O’Connor?

This represents a new low in our city’s decision making. It’s an affront to residents who are concerned about the role developer money plays in our election process or who have questioned the pace of development. By firing Elizabeth because she legitimately expressed views shared by many residents, the city is saying that only those who agree with developers are eligible for city jobs.

SMCLC is outraged by the city’s treatment of this highly qualified woman and the attempt to chill the free speech of residents who are critical of overdevelopment. SMCLC has served a public records request on the city for documents to try to uncover the truth of who was behind this sordid affair. The city should conduct a full independent investigation into the facts.

If you, too, are troubled by this, please take a moment to send an email to Rod Gould,[email protected], to City Attorney Marsha Moutrie at [email protected], and [email protected] and also cc: SMCLC at [email protected] Let them know your concerns about Elizabeth’s firing and urge them to conduct a full investigation.

Thanks,

Victor, Diana, Sherrill and Jeff

Statement from Rod Gould, City Rod Gould, City Manager, has released the following statement regarding the position of Public Affairs and Communications Officer:

“My recent decision to withdraw a job offer to Elizabeth Riel for a position in my office as Communications and Public Affairs Officer has caused some in the community to raise questions.

Because this is a personnel matter involving a hiring decision, I am not able to discuss various details of the decision. I respect the privacy and other rights involved. I offer this general statement by way of explanation.

Members of my office, department directors, and I must always exhibit the highest levels of competency, professionalism, integrity, and political neutrality in order to be effective in our roles.

The Council-Manager form of government has served the people of Santa Monica well for more than half a century. The people choose their councilmembers to represent them. The City Council makes policy and sets the direction of the City of Santa Monica. The City Council in turn hires the City Manager to impartially oversee the implementation of Council policy and the overall management and administration of municipal services, as well as most of the City workforce. The Council appoints and hires only three individuals in our system: City Manager, City Attorney, and City Clerk.

The Council-Manager form of government sprang from the Progressive era early in the last century. The aim then as now was largely to remove political patronage, favoritism, nepotism and old school Tammany Hall-type politics from the employment of city workers and the general running of cities. The goal then - as now - was that professional, non-elected officials who serve at the highest level of city government must be viewed as nonpartisan and unaffiliated with political groups or individuals.

In Santa Monica, the merit system is the basis of employment for most of the general workforce – the vast majority of which is in the civil service system. Not all positions are in civil service. A few positions, such as the Council-appointed officials, the department directors and members of my office, who I appoint, serve “at-will,” which is how most non-governmental workers in the country are also employed.

It is essential that members of my office and the department heads serve all residents, community groups and the City Councilmembers equally and fairly. We must park our political opinions at the door each day. We must be politically astute, but apolitical. We cannot be viewed as political players or politically aligned with any particular leaders or interest groups.

We are also called upon to provide policy advice to the Council and Commissions and do so in the best interest to the community as a whole. When policy decisions are made – they become our marching orders, and we implement, explain, and defend them as if they were our own. That is what is required of professional local government managers.

For the vast majority of City positions, one’s political activity at any level would not be of question or concern. What matters is performance, the highest level of ethical standards and adherence to all laws and regulations. The duties of the Communications and Public Affairs Officer are different from most other positions in that this person must interact with all members of the City Council, various community leaders, the media, other legislators and serve as the official spokesperson for City government. To have the trust of all involved, this person must be free of all political alliances.

Kate Vernez, who recently retired from a similar position, epitomized political neutrality. At a ceremony to thank her for her service recently, residents, community leaders and current and former councilmembers of all views came together to celebrate her. They did so because they respected her for her unqualified and uniform respect for them. She was able to work across the political spectrum with people holding widely divergent views. Kate remained impartial and was regarded as being so while implementing City Council policy. That is what I need and expect from whoever replaces Kate. I would not knowingly hire anyone who is partisan or who has a strong history of being so for this position, regardless of his or her views.

To those who question the legality or process, please know that I consulted closely with the City Attorney, Assistant City Attorney, Human Resources Director and Assistant City Manager throughout the process to make certain that it was handled appropriately. It was.

I regret that I had to make the decision to revoke the offer of employment. And, I regret that I can’t say more. But, as I noted earlier, it is a personnel matter. So, I cannot.”

 

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