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Santa Monica Slow-Growth Activists Launch Investigation of Controversial Hire and Fire Decision

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

By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

July 24, 2015 -- A Santa Monica activist organization is launching its own investigation into the City’s controversial hiring of a communications director who was then abruptly fired, allegedly after her political activities came to light.

The City Council without comment voted July 14 to pay $710,000 to settle the lawsuit filed by Elizabeth Riel. Now that the City has settled the suit, the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) said in a message to supporters that it is stepping into the fray.

“Elizabeth was fired for exercising her First Amendment rights to engage in protected political free speech,” SMCLC officials wrote in an email. “When Elizabeth was terminated we warned that this outrageous firing was illegal and would result in significant damages against the city.”

As a first step, the SMCLC has served a public records request with the City seeking “all relevant emails” between former City Manager Rod Gould and former Mayor Pam O’Connor.

The SMCLC accuses O’Connor, now a council member, of applying pressure to fire Riel because of Riel’s work with SMCLC on a political campaign accusing O’Connor of selling out to developers.

“The public has a right to know how the city got into this taxpayer financed fiasco,” the organization’s letter said.  “We will vigorously pursue this matter until all the facts are known and those responsible are held accountable.” 

“All options are open,” Diana Gordon, SMCLC co-chair, added in an email to the Lookout.

The cost to the City of the litigation was probably more than $1 million because the City hired outside counsel, Gordon said.

“The City's shameful conduct that resulted in the $1 million dollar taxpayer costs in the case is a matter of great public interest and concern,” she said.

In its message to supporters, SMCLC highlights quotes from O’Connor given to a local publication during the controversy. In it, O’Connor denied using her influence as then-mayor to get Riel fired.

“I might have commented on my experience with her. But I can’t tell the city manager what to do,” she was reported to have said.

O’Connor also said “I didn’t even remember that she had attacked me until after I had done some research but what I did remember is that my brain personally said, ‘Don’t trust her.’ My brain probably thought that because she attacked me,” she said.

“I do let things go to a certain level, like that detail, but we humans, we want to protect ourselves,” O’Connor reportedly said.

O’Connor could not be reached for comment.

Riel was hired in May of 2014 as the City’s head of communications and public affairs. But the offer was rescinded a month later, with Gould citing “personnel reasons.”

Riel’s lawsuit, which was filed in Federal Court, alleged the City and Gould admitted that Riel was fired for writing a newspaper column that was critical of a Council member and contributing to another councilmember’s re-election campaign.

Riel’s contribution to current mayor Kevin 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)

In her lawsuit, Riel alleged that her job offer was rescinded after Gould learned of her political activities, violating her First Amendment rights.

“Gould told Riel that she would be viewed as being aligned with some City Council members and not others,” the lawsuit said.

Gould, now retired, 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.

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