The post originally appeared in The Healthy City Local.
In the wee hours last Wednesday, after a long City Council meeting dealing mostly with the crucial issue of the minimum wage, the council spent more than an hour agreeing to hire independent counsel to review the firing of Elizabeth Riel. This is well and good, as the episode was a costly fiasco, and one hopes the independent counsel will identify lessons to be learned to avoid such calamities in the future. (The counsel will also make recommendations about how to enforce the Oaks Initiative, the law that restricts what relationships city officials may have with persons or entities that they bestow benefits on.)
The independent counsel’s review will take place concurrently with a review by the L.A. County District Attorney’s office to see if any criminal laws were broken. According to City Attorney Marsha Moutrie violations of the City Charter are misdemeanors, and if the D.A. determines that there is evidence that then-Mayor Pam O’Connor violated the charter by directing then-City Manager Rod Gould to fire Riel, O’Connor could face a criminal charge.
While these reviews and investigations might have occurred anyway (and at least the city review should have), they stem directly from charges that the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) started making in July after the city settled with Riel for $710,000. Give SMCLC credit, they were the first to obtain the relevant documents through a document request to the city, and for a while they were the only outside parties with the documents. In August, not long after receiving the documents, SMCLC announced its conclusion that O’Connor had “relentlessly pressured” Gould to fire Riel.
By the time the City Council voted last week to authorize the outside review, more people had had the opportunity to review the evidence, however, and SMCLC started hedging. (For my review of the evidence, see Riel Politics, Part 1.) For instance, the Lookout quoted Diana Gordon of SMCLC as saying the outside review would have to “go beyond the record in the Riel lawsuit,” because it (the record) “was developed for a different purpose.” I.e., SMCLC was admitting that the record unearthed so far did not show that O’Connor had told Gould to fire Riel.
Similarly, last week when SMCLC presented the council with a list of nine questions that the group wanted the independent counsel to review, only one of the questions directly concerned O’Connor. The phrasing of that question, which included another caveat about the criminal investigation (“Did Mayor Pam O’Connor improperly intervene in and attempt to influence the City Manager’s decision to fire Elizabeth Riel? (This differs from the criminal matter concerning whether she violated [City Charter] Section 610 beyond a reasonable doubt.)”) is further indication that SMCLC has doubts that the evidence will show a violation of the charter.
But it turns out O’Connor is just an appetizer. The other eight questions (in fact, counting sub-questions, there are at least 14 other questions) concern the conduct of staff—not only Gould, but also “senior staff whom Mr. Gould sought advice from” and City Attorney Moutrie. These questions extend to, among other things, the process used for the hiring of Riel’s replacement, the quality of Moutrie’s legal advice to Gould, and highly speculative questions like whether the matter could have been settled sooner. (For that last question, does the SMCLC intend that Riel and her lawyers be put under oath to tell the independent counsel what they would have settled for and when?)
If words like “fishing expedition” or “Benghazi” are coming to mind, there’s an irony to that. Riel’s association with SMCLC, which ultimately sank her employment by the city, began in 2006 when the then newly-formed SMCLC launched a fishing expedition against city staff. This was in connection with the plans of Macerich to re-do Santa Monica Place with three tall buildings. The plans never had a chance to be approved (for various reasons, including that the city would have had to spend too much money on new parking), but SMCLC feared the worst and assumed that the plans could not have been developed without improper connivance between the developer and city staff.
SMCLC made a big deal about suing the city to get copies of emails and other documents. The city ultimately not only produced the documents but also had to pay the group’s $36,000 in legal fees. After all that, however, SMCLC never released any documents showing the malfeasance they assumed had been committed. Apparently there were none.
As I’ve written before, SMCLC has been all about power. Its well-heeled and sophisticated leadership condescends to the political process in Santa Monica and acts as if everyone involved (or nearly everyone—they do have their favorites) must be incompetent and/or corrupt. The group has always had a special animus against O’Connor, who culturally—she’s the daughter of a Chicago cop, and doesn’t hide it—must epitomize everything that the SMCLC’s fastidious and pious leadership doesn’t like about government.
O’Connor, who has no money of her own, hasn’t helped herself by having to finance her campaigns with contributions from business interests, including developers. She doesn’t suffer fools too well, either. All this has made her prone to attack, but for 20 years O’Connor has been one of the most respected political leaders in Southern California, serving on and often chairing numerous powerful regional boards that you can’t get elected to unless you have the respect of officeholders from other cities. It’s ludicrous that she gets picked on by a group of self-appointed watchdogs like SMCLC.
Having said that, the city didn’t have the right to fire Elizabeth Riel, and I’ll discuss why not in the next installment of Riel Politics.
Thanks for reading.