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Santa Monica Council Member Criticized by Colleagues
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Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica


By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

April 28, 2016 -- Santa Monica City Councilmember Pam O’Connor was criticized Tuesday by Council colleagues, who said a new outside ethics review showed she misled them about her role in the controversial 2014 firing of a City communications director she deemed a political foe.

Calls by activists for censure of O’Connor, however, were mostly dismissed by the Council, with members saying they wanted to put the long – and ultimately costly – controversy behind them.

“We’re all interested in learning from this and moving forward,” Mayor Tony Vazquez said.

Still, Council members who are usually less outspoken criticized O’Connor for the nine emails she sent in three days to then-City Manager Rod Gould about Elizabeth Riel, according to the review.

Riel's job offer was rescinded by Gould when it was learned she was a slow-growth activist who tried to unseat O'Connor. ("Offer Rescinded to Political Activist for Santa Monica’s Top Communications Job,"May 29, 2014.)

The Council dug into the review together for the first, and the only member who didn’t criticize O’Connor was Gleam Davis, a Council ally. O’Connor’s other ally, Terry O’Day, was not present.

But the four members of the Council slow-growth majority all expressed high levels of frustration.

Council Member Ted Winterer said O’Connor’s actions had “tainted” her, and her long effort to bring the Expo Line to Santa Monica.

Council Member Sue Himmelrich also took umbrage with O’Connor.

“We wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we didn’t tell Ms. O’Connor how we feel about this,” Himmelrich said. “I’m sorry but I do think there can be no reconciliation without truth. There is still a dearth of truth here.”

Vazquez said O’Connor purposely misled the rest of the Council when asked about Riel, but noted that the council's authority is limited, since it cannot fire an elected official or prosecute such cases.

“Our only power is to censure, and that would be even more disruptive,” Vazquez said.

Council members said instead that they wanted to move on, and ordered City officials to follow the review’s recommendations for strengthening the Oaks Initiative, the City’s anti-corruption law.

O’Connor, who has said she communicated with Gould but did not seek to influence him regarding Riel, apologized for her actions.

“I do want the community to know that I understand that City hiring decisions are made by the city manager and the staff,” she said.

“Yes, I probably should have found a better way to express my first amendment rights in communicating to the former city manager, I think that’s clear.”

O'Connor said it had been a learning experience and that “now the matter has been settled and I hope that all of us can move forward.”

The Riel case and O’Connor’s role in it is one of several controversies that prompted the independent ethics review conducted by John Hueston, a prominent litigator with expertise in ethics law.

Appearing before the Council, Hueston said he found that O’Connor violated a City law prohibiting the Council from interfering in City hiring and firing.

She “crossed the line,” he told the council.

After being fired, Riel sued the City in federal court and received a $710,000 settlement.

The Council hired Hueston’s firm in December. The 57-page report, released publicly last week, said lapses in judgment led to “cascading consequences.” It included the emails by O’Connor, which the report said were not “mindful” of the City’s law on hiring and firing.

He also recommends that the City Attorney’s Office either begin to dedicate a prosecutor from its office to enforce the Oaks Initiative, the city’s corruption law, or hire outside counsel to do so.

Passed by voters 16 years ago, the initiative has gone mostly unenforced by the City Attorney’s Office over potential conflict-of-interest concerns.

More than 20 speakers attended Tuesday’s meeting to discuss the review. Included were a few who came to support O’Connor, who has been on the Council since 1994.

“She is a fearless champion” of bringing the Expo light rail to Santa Monica, said Jeremy Stutes, chair of railLA, a pro-mass transit nonprofit group comprised of architects, planners and engineers.

"I’ve known her to be one of the most ethical people I’ve known. She did nothing illegal. I think we should believe her."

Also appearing were representatives of activists groups supportive of the Hueston report but also anxious for the City Attorney’s Office to start prosecuting corruption allegations.

Alleged violations of the Oaks Initiative have prompted two complaints in recent years, both by The Transparency Project, a local watchdog group with ties to slow-growth activists who oppose O'Connor.

One complaint, filed in 2015, involved Gould’s decision to work for a private consultant with whom he had done business as City Manager after he left his City post. Gould agreed to forego the new job.

The other alleged that O'Connor accepted inappropriate campaign donations from developers when she was mayor in 2014. O’Connor agreed to return some of the money.

Mary Marlow, who heads the the Transparency Project, said that O'Connor still has campaign contributions she has not returned and asked the City Attorney’s Office to take immediate action. The Hueston report, she said, has cleared a path for investigating the issue.

“This is a good day for Santa Monica,” Marlow said.

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