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Santa Monica Mayor Wants Scrutiny of Council member's Role in Firing Controversy

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

September 2, 2015 -- The controversy surrounding Elizabeth Riel, the woman the City hired and fired last year allegedly because she was involved in an old political campaign against Santa Monica Council member Pam O’Connor, is ratcheting up a level.

The City Council and top City officials will scrutinize the allegations made by the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) that O'Connor pressured officials to rescind Riel's job offer, Mayor Kevin McKeown said Tuesday.

McKeown said that he wanted to assure the community that “a proper process to go forward will be explored, with the professional help of our City administration advising the Council as a whole.”

The mayor’s comments were yet another turn in the ongoing political saga of Riel, who was hired to be the City’s head of communications and then abruptly fired before she could start. A SMCLC investigation concluded O’Connor waged a blistering behind-the-scenes attack on Riel because of her political affiliations.

Riel had tangled with O’Connor as part of the SMCLC’s election-time battle against the councilwoman eight years ago. It included a role in a mailer that accused O’Connor of selling out to developers.

McKeown said he is asking the City Council to scrutinize the information provided by SMCLC, which on Monday asked the Council and the City Attorney’s office to investigate whether O’Connor’s actions violated the City Charter.

City law prohibits any city council member from interfering in the City Manager’s hiring and firing decisions.

Emails and other documents released by SMCLC “have generated an allegation regarding compliance with the City Charter, which we can and must consider,” McKeown said.

He said he has asked “that the full documents, not just excerpts, be provided to the City Council. If Charter compliance is properly enforced or directed by the City Council itself,  that will require us to meet as a body to make decisions.”

“This week when the City Attorney returns I have scheduled a meeting with her, the City
Manager and the City Clerk to explore options,” he added.

Riel went on to file suit against the City in Federal Court alleging violations of her First Amendment rights. The City Council signed off on a $710,000 settlement in July.

SMCLC's  investigation detailed emails and court testimony by O’Connor, and concluded that she conducted a secret campaign, much of it focused on then-City Manager Rod Gould, to keep Riel from her City job.

O’Connor has dismissed all the allegations against her as politically motivated, and says she has no opposition to any investigations into her actions.

Despite a past political rivalry with McKeown, O’Connor on Tuesday said she didn’t believe the mayor was allowing politics to influence his decision to bring the City Council into the fray. She said McKeown had already informed her of his intention regarding the Riel issue, and that she had no problem with it.

“There are no secrets here,” she said.

McKeown also said politics had no role in his actions. He said he deliberately held off on taking action to allow O’Connor to make a statement if she wanted to do so.

“I called Pam myself and read her what I sent…as a courtesy.  She had no problem with my wording.”

He said his statement on the matter was “very carefully neutral, and merely assures the
community that we acknowledge receipt of yesterday's very public complaint
and will seek the proper process to deal with it,” he said.

“Not only am I acting responsibly in my special role as Mayor, I am personally trying to make this a calm and fair process in the interest of our community as a whole.”

McKeown and O’Connor have a long history of political rivalry, opposing each other on such issues as development and repeatedly on the selection of a council member to serve as a mayor.

Although until recently, McKeown and O’Connor were both longtime members of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights (SMRR) they have backed other candidates in elections and failed to support each other when the council chooses a mayor. O'Connor broke with SMRR during last year's election campaign.

The tension between the two longtime council members inadvertently made its way to the public several years ago  when O’Connor, thinking the microphone on the dais was off, let slip an expletive aimed at McKeown.

And in its Riel investigation, the SMCLC quotes O’Connor as flaring up over Riel’s support of McKeown, using it as a strike against her.

The slow-growth activists' strong opposition to O'Connor has been illustrated by their reaction to McKeown's position on the Reil controversy, the Mayor said.

McKeown said he has “gotten criticism from residents already that my statement was too neutral, and didn’t include a strong condemnation of what the complainants believe was wrong-doing.”

He said it disappointed him that his words could possibly be read “as a political attack.”

O’Connor has been on the Council since 1994; McKeown has been a member since 1998.

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