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Santa Monica City Council Requests Ethics Review

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

Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica

By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

October 2, 2015 -- Facing public calls for an investigation, the City Council voted Tuesday to order an outside review of Santa Monica’s anti-corruption law that could include looking at whether political wrongdoing by Council member Pam O’Connor led to the controversial firing of a public relations director last year.

After a lengthy meeting that ended after midnight Wednesday, the Council voted 6-to-0 to hire outside experts to review the City’s Oaks Initiative, an anti-corruption law approved by voters in 2000 but viewed by some City officials as unenforceable.

The council authorized funding for an independent review of similar anti-corruption laws in California in an effort to show transparency “in the wake of” calls by slow-growth groups to investigate the hiring and firing of Elizabeth Riel as the City’s top communications officer last year.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Mayor Kevin McKeown said he understood the public’s desire to know more about the costly Riel dispute.

“Frankly, I was very disappointed by the incomplete disclosure I got from the people involved while it was going on and when it was being resolved,” McKeown said, adding that O’Connor was “a little less than forthcoming.”

“We are not going to ignore this or sweep it under the rug,” he said.

Slow-growth activists claim O’Connor worked behind-the scenes to fire Riel, who helped fund a campaign piece opposing her re-election in 2006.  Riel sued in Federal Court and won a $710,000 City Council settlement in July – although some say the price tag is closer to $1 million when outside legal fees are included.

The City Charter prohibits the Council from interfering in personnel matters handled by the City Manager. O’Connor has acknowledged that she had expressed opinions of Riel but says she was not involved in her firing by former City Manager Rod Gould.

A request by the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City for an investigation was forwarded to the District Attorney’s Office and is now with the Public Integrity Unit, City Attorney Marsha Moutrie told the Council. She said it was a conflict of interest for her office to investigate City officials.

The council on Tuesday made no decision on who would be hired to conduct the independent investigation or how much the probe would cost the City.

Council members agreed to send City Manager Rick Cole a list of candidates who could conduct the review. Cole said he would whittle down the list and return to the Council for a decision.

Council member Gleam Davis warned that the review would be costly for taxpayers.

“These are expensive people that can exceed $1,000 an hour” to hire, she said. “I’m not saying that’s a reason not to do it. I just don’t want anyone to think this is going to be a $50,000 project because it’s not.”

Although Wednesday’s motion does not specify that the Riel controversy will be part of the review, council members made it clear at the meeting that the dispute, and other ethics issues, would be studied.

“In order to understand what needs to be different, we need to know what happened,” said Council member Sue Himmelrich, who authored the motion.

She, like Council member Gleam Davis and others, noted that the City Council does not have prosecutorial powers.

“But we can find out if we have problems with abuse of power and elitism and etcetera, etcetera at City Hall and why, and what kinds of law we need to avoid that,” Himmelrich said.

Davis added that “no one says don’t look at what happened in the Riel case and other cases. We have a body of things that we need to hire somebody to look at and say here’s what we should be doing differently.”

The Council’s motion calls for the independent reviewer to be hired in public by the Council and have the “power to obtain documents upon request and interview staff, elected officials, appointed officials, and third parties as necessary.”

Still, council members tried not to raise expectations too high on the depth of the Riel hiring probe or how much power the Council had to take corrective action if needed.

Council member Terry O’Day, an O’Connor ally, was careful that motion’s wording specified the need to review the Oaks Initiative and “best practices” by other cities.

The Oaks Initiative prohibits city officials from awarding public benefits, such as contracts, and reaping benefits, such as contributions or employment, in return. Enforcing the law, however, has been a problem.

In a different case this year, complaints were filed against Gould for accepting employment from a firm that had received contracts he approved as City Manager.

The case was sent to City Attorney Marsha Moutrie, who deemed it a conflict of interest to investigate a city employee and forwarded it to county prosecutors, who have declined to take on any Oaks Initiative cases.

Council member Ted Winterer was absent from the meeting due to health issues. O’Connor said little in the discussion of the review, but voted for the motion. In the past, she has denied any wrongdoing and said she welcomed all investigations.

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