Santa Monica Lookout
|Santa Monica Hire-Fire Episode Flares||
When one lives in a city as breathtakingly beautiful and unique as Santa Monica, inevitably that city will be shared with visitors.
By Daniel Larios
June 11, 2014 – Santa Monica City Manger Rod Gould’s decision to rescind the hiring of Elizabeth Riel as the City’s new communications chief flared into a full-fledged public battle Tuesday.
A dozen speakers called for the reinstatement of Riel -- a former neighborhood leader and political activist -- Tuesday evening before the City Council went into a closed-door session to evaluate Gould and discuss a pending lawsuit by Riel.
A binder placed outside the Council chambers contained copies of two dozen emails sent to Gould and the City Council after his decision to rescind Riel’s $155,784 annual contract five days before she was to assume the post June 2. Twenty-three were critical of Gould, both for the current decision and past actions.
In a press release issued Monday by Riel’s attorney, Steven Kaplan, Riel contends that the City of Santa Monica violated her First Amendment rights of free speech and association by rescinding her employment contract.
She claims that the action was in response to a monetary contribution in 2006 to the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City to oppose the re-election of current Mayor Pam O’Connor.
“I am deeply disappointed that the City of Santa Monica – where my husband and I have lived, raised our children, and worked to support our community for more than 10 years – will not allow me to serve simply because I was involved in city affairs,” Riel said.
“I think our democracy thrives when everyone is encouraged to be civically engaged and speak their minds. I am afraid that the actions by the City of Santa Monica will discourage other community members, as well as Californians across the state, from getting involved and making a difference in their own communities, because they fear that government agencies may later retaliate against them.”
Kaplan called Gould’s termination of the contract a “blatant violation” of Riel’s First Amendment rights.
“The right to engage in civic activities, and the right to make political contributions,” Kaplan wrote, “are among the most sacred rights we have as citizens, and go to the very heart of our democratic system; these are activities that should be encouraged by our government leaders.
“The City of Santa Monica’s unlawful termination of Ms. Riel’s contract was a blatant violation of those rights,” Kaplan wrote. “Ironically, few people have done more to advance equality and fair treatment under the law for all Californians than Ms. Riel.”
Most of the letters received by the City spoke about the alleged violation of Riel’s first amendment rights and advocated re-hiring her as the city’s principal spokesperson.
“Worst. Response. Ever,” wrote Peter Altschuler. “A person’s private activities can have no bearing on decisions related to their professional competence and capabilities.”
“We in Santa Monica pride ourselves as behaving to a higher standard and not stooping down to the level of corrupt, Chicago-style politics,” wrote Dr. Daniel Galamba.
Of the 24 letters, only one supported of Gould
“I hope you will support Rod Gould as you review his performance,” wrote Tom Hays in an email to the City Council. “As an interested Santa Monica voter, I think he does a competent, diligent job.”
While the vast majority of emails spoke in detail about Gould’s decision, a couple of the letters mixed up a few details here and there.
“As a Santa Monica resident, I urge you to investigate the firing of Elizabeth Hines. It appears that the firing was undemocratic, unjustified and wrong,” wrote Judith Wolfson, confusing Riel and the Hines development that was recently rescinded by Council action last month.
Some emails brought up Riel’s lawsuit. “Because of the political game playing, the city now faces a lawsuit from Ms. Riel that very well could cost the city millions of dollars,” wrote Charles Follette.
In addition to correspondence sent to the City Council, supporters of Riel spoke out during the Council meeting’s public comment period.
“One can’t help but fear that the tension between the pro and slow grow development [groups] has reached a new level of toxicity, which puts the animosity between City officials above the needs of its residents,” said Laura Morton.
As with the emails, most of the speakers came out against Gould. Also like the emails, only one person defended the City Manager.
“People at City Hall don’t speak their politics,” said peace activist Jerry Rubin. “That’s a good policy to have. It’s good to have someone there that will communicate with the public that has experience and in a non-partisan way,”
At press deadline, the Council had not reported back from closed session.
Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. Vice President Debbie Lee is scheduled to assume the post of Public Information Chief next month.
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