Santa Monica Lookout
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Allegations Fly in Wake of Santa Monica Hire and Fire Episode

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Santa Monica Convention and Visitors BureauWhen one lives in a city as breathtakingly beautiful and unique as Santa Monica, inevitably that city will be shared with visitors.

By Jonathan Friedman
Associate Editor

June 6, 2014 -- Some people, including a Santa Monica City Council member, are not happy about City Manager Rod Gould’s decision last week to rescind the hiring of a communications chief possibly due to her alliance with slow-growth advocates. But Gould is defending himself, and rejected an activist group’s allegation that his action was illegal.

A debate on this issue currently being conducted via press releases and a Facebook post could soon advance to the council chambers, both in public and behind closed doors.

Items have been added to the closed-session portion of next Tuesday’s agenda regarding a performance review of Gould and “anticipated litigation” that could involve the job offer issue.

Although the council discusses closed-session items outside the public view, residents can address them during the public comment portions of the meeting.

Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC), a slow-growth activist group, issued an email to the media and supporters earlier this week blasting Gould for what it called “firing” communications veteran and political activist Elizabeth Riel. He in fact rescinded the job offer before what was to be her official start date.

When Gould told The Lookout about his decision last week, he declined to say why he made it.

Sources say Gould had recently learned Riel had partly funded a campaign in 2006 against the City Council re-election bid of Pam O’Connor, who some activists see as “pro-development”.

Also in 2006, Riel financially supported the re-election campaign of Kevin McKeown, who is a political opponent of O’Connor. Both O’Connor and McKeown were easily elected to new terms that year.

SMCLC determined that Riel’s politics were behind Gould’s decision, and alleged it was an illegal one.

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

They continued, “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.”

Gould responded to the allegation through a press release issued Thursday. Although he again would not specify why he decided to rescind the job offer, he wrote that the city’s top communications officer should be “apolitical.”  (“Statement from Rod Gould, City Manager, City of Santa Monica on Public Affairs and Communications Officer Position,” June 6, 2014)

“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,” Gould wrote. “To have the trust of all involved, this person must be free of all political alliances.”

He added, “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.”

Also on Thursday, a local newspaper columnist posted a critical email about Gould from McKeown on the page of the Facebook group “Santa Monica Government, Politics, Policies and People.”

McKeown confirmed to The Lookout that the Facebook post contains his words, but that they were meant to serve as “background to a columnist who had asked me questions,” and he “was not asked permission to forward, post or otherwise distribute [the words].”

The Facebook post states McKeown wrote that he had told Gould earlier how he and Riel had been “allied politically” and it was “A-OK” with Gould at the time.

McKeown wrote that Gould told him this week, “the information that caused him to rescind the hiring of Elizabeth Riel was brought to him [by another person].”

“This raises the question of who has the political clout in this town to get someone fired,” wrote McKeown, according to the Facebook post. “I asked Rod twice who conveyed the information to him. He declined, twice, to tell me.

McKeown continued, “If the city manager had from the outset been clear that he wanted someone in that position who had no relevant political allegiances whatsoever, that would have been one thing. To make hiring decisions based on the content of someone’s political interests is something else altogether, something much more troublesome.”

The Facebook post also states that McKeown asked Gould to add an evaluation of himself to the agenda, and Gould “hemmed and hawed” that this must be done in cooperation with the mayor and mayor pro tem, but eventually the item was added.

Also, McKeown wrote the “anticipated allegation” council agenda item “may be the threatened lawsuit from Elizabeth Riel against the City.” Riel did not respond to The Lookout’s phone message asking for comment.

Earlier this week, Gould announced a new hiring for the job that was supposed to go to Riel. Debbie Lee, current vice president of Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. and former vice president of business development for the Santa Monica Convention and Visitors Bureau, will begin at her new post in July.

McKeown wrote, according to the Facebook post, that this decision means “this situation is going to grow in community outrage” because Gould hired “someone from the Downtown Santa Monica/Convention and Visitors Bureau development realm to replace Elizabeth, seen as slow-growth and resident-friendly.”

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