This piece originally ran on Frank Gruber’s blog, The Healthy City Local.
My intention a month ago when I wrote my fourth installment of “Riel Politics,” my series of posts on the firing of Elizabeth Riel, was to wrap up the series with a fifth post in which I drew some conclusions. Other matters came up, however, I got distracted, and I am only now getting to it. In the meantime there’s been more grist for the mill: two weeks ago the County District Attorney’s office wrote the city declining to investigate whether Councilmember Pam O’Connor had committed a misdemeanor by improperly influencing then City Manager Rod Gould when he fired Riel, and then Tuesday night the City Council voted to engage attorney John Hueston as an independent counsel to, among other things, review the Riel matter.
The D.A.’s decision not to investigate O’Connor has been reported as if O’Connor escaped prosecution because of the statute of limitations (for instance, the Daily Press’s headline ran, “Statute of limitations prevents criminal charges in Riel case”), but that’s not accurate for two reasons. For one, based on the letter the D.A.’s office sent to the city it’s clear that the prosecutors didn’t consider this a criminal matter. As reported in the Daily Press, the letter from the D.A.’s office said, before getting to the statute of limitations issue, that “the hiring and firing of employees is a civil matter left to the sound discretion of the city of Santa Monica and, when necessary, the civil courts.” For two, the statute of limitations would prevent an investigation, but not necessarily the filing of charges, which the D.A. would file only if there was evidence to do so.
There is nothing in the evidence that shows either that O’Connor pressured Gould to fire Riel or that Gould did not make the decision independently.
[/pullquote]In fact, if I were O’Connor, I would be asking if I could waive the statute of limitations: the D.A.’s refusal to investigate was a godsend to O’Connor’s accusers, since the D.A. was so unlikely to file criminal charges. Aside from whether the matter was civil rather than criminal, there is nothing in the exhaustive record unearthed in Riel’s civil action against the city that indicates that O’Connor had any intent to have Riel fired. Intent is a necessary element of a criminal case, and even assuming O’Connor had intended to cause Gould to fire Riel, unless anyone expects O’Connor to voluntarily confess such an intent (remember that in a criminal matter O’Connor could not be required to testify against herself), the D.A. would have had no case.
As I wrote in Riel Politics, Part 3, I assume the difficulty of proving a criminal case is why the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) hedged on its claim that O’Connor was criminally liable when it gave the city a long list of questions for an independent counsel to investigate.
As for the hiring of Hueston, the council appears to have retained someone with the right credentials. The council hired Hueston to do a preliminary analysis, for no more than $25,000; after that, Hueston will advise the council on how much deeper he believes he should go.
One unknown at the present time is whether Hueston will uncover more evidence than what was discovered in Riel’s civil action. Except for one possible new source of information, I suspect that that is unlikely. I’ll discuss that possible source in a moment; in the meantime, here are the conclusions I’m prepared to make based on the existing evidence.
As I said, there is nothing in the evidence that shows either that O’Connor pressured Gould to fire Riel or that Gould did not make the decision independently. Based on the emails, O’Connor’s goal was always not to have to work with Riel. As we know from the Levy case (a/k/a, the “playhouse” case), council members have First Amendment rights to speak to staff members. Looking ahead, it’s unlikely that Hueston is going to recommend that council members cease communicating with the city manager and other staff, because that’s part of a council member’s job.
As for what went wrong, the one clear lesson that emerges from this fiasco is that when the city has an extensive and formal application process (for, in this case, a job, but this applies to any kind of process), city staff, and in particular a city manager, needs to think more than twice before making a decision that subverts the process.
In a short period of time, from the afternoon of Friday, May 23, to the morning of May 24, 2014, Gould decided to fire Riel. Riel had been hired only after a thorough and formal process. Instead of trusting that process, from the emails it appears that Gould based an impulsive decision primarily on one answer Riel gave him to a question in a phone call late Friday afternoon. While Riel might have answered the question better (less defensively), the phone call had blindsided her: Gould had told Riel that he had a “gnarly” political issue to run by her, but he had given her no indication that the issue involved her. I would have been defensive, too.
It was the afternoon heading into a holiday weekend. In hindsight, the thing for Gould to have said to Riel was: “This is a problem. But have a good weekend, and let’s get together next week to discuss. Let’s try to find a way to make this work.” It’s possible that Gould felt badgered by O’Connor, but it’s a manager’s job to filter that stuff out.
What we don’t know, based on the evidence we have, is the role of City Attorney Marsha Moutrie in Gould’s decision-making process. From the emails it appears that Moutrie advised Gould on May 23 that Riel’s position was not protected by civil service, i.e., that she was an “at will” employee. As we know, however, from the ruling rejecting the city’s motion to dismiss Riel’s complaint, even at will employees cannot be fired wholly without cause or in violation of their constitutional rights. We don’t know if Moutrie gave Gould advice along those lines or what other advice she may have given him. It appears that Gould decided to fire Riel that Saturday morning without having had another conversation with Moutrie (he says in an email to O’Connor, Moutrie, and his deputy Elaine Polachek, that he “will” (future tense) consult with Moutrie), but we don’t know for sure.
The legal advice that Moutrie gave Gould is the one area I can see where Hueston may uncover more information, but this would require Gould, and possibly the city as a whole, to waive the attorney-client privilege. I don’t know if this can or will happen.
Thanks for reading.