Documents Reveal O’Connor Role in City Employee Firing
August 24, 2015
SMCLC recently obtained private emails, sworn testimony and other documents in Elizabeth Riel’s lawsuit against the City. These documents show City Councilmember and then Mayor Pam O’Connor relentlessly pressured then City Manager Rod Gould to fire Elizabeth for having made a donation to an SMCLC political mailer in 2006. The mailer disclosed campaign contributions to O’Connor from a major developer with business before the City. See http://www.smclc.net/OConnor-Riel.html
Our City Charter explicitly prohibits any city councilmember from interfering in the City Manager’s hiring and firing decisions—a councilmember cannot, even indirectly, request that a city employee be hired or fired. No other councilmembers were included in or even knew about O’Connor’s campaign to fire Elizabeth.
The prohibition against interference is absolute. As even Gould was compelled to admit in his testimony, O’Connor did not “have a right to try to influence [my] decision regarding Ms. Riel.” Yet that is exactly what she repeatedly did, ratcheting up the pressure until Gould finally relented and fired Elizabeth.
In 2014 the City hired Elizabeth Riel to be its Communications Director. City Manager Gould praised Elizabeth, her community activities and expertise. He then abruptly fired her before her first day of work for her association with SMCLC eight year’s prior to her hiring.
SMCLC told the City at the time of the firing that it was unconstitutional, that Elizabeth was being fired for engaging in protected free speech, and that the City would be liable for significant damages. See http://www.smclc.net/cityFiresResident.html
After she was terminated, Elizabeth sued the City for violating her First Amendment rights. The judge found that “a reasonable person would have understood [Elizabeth Riel’s] termination was unconstitutional.”http://www.smclc.net/OConnor-Riel.html
Discovery was taken, exposing O’Connor’s campaign to get Elizabeth fired. The City then settled the lawsuit, costing taxpayers over $1,000,000, including the City’s legal fees.
Evidence of O’Connor’s Central Role in the Firing:
Soon after Elizabeth was fired, O’Connor downplayed her involvement in the affair, telling the Daily Press newspaper: “I might have commented [to Rod Gould] on my experience with her [Elizabeth].” (http://smdp.com/council-evaluate-gould-rescinded-job-offer/135061)
The evidence, however, completely refutes O’Connor’s description of her involvement as possible or casual.
Days before Elizabeth was supposed to report to work, Ms. O’Connor began a relentless campaign against her, sending some nine private emails to Mr. Gould over a 36-hour period -- with escalating threats and hostility -- eventually questioning Mr. Gould’s competency. The barrage was so intense that at one point Mr. Gould offered to resign.
Initially, Gould and his top staff resisted O’Connor, recognizing in internal emails that they had made “the right decision” and “the right choice” in hiring Elizabeth. Gould asked O’Connor to “give her (Elizabeth) a chance to prove herself.”
But O’Connor was unmoved, responding: “I do not and will not trust her. I will not work with her… she attacked me directly by putting money into a hit piece… She is a supporter of Kevin (McKeown).” (It was election season and the emails show O’Connor objected to having someone at City Hall that she perceived was aligned with another councilmember.)
O’Connor then went after Mr. Gould: “This is the best practice of City a Mangers!!! (sic) Hire people who are political enemies of people elected to your Council?” And in another email: ”…I am being attacked from both outside City Hall and from within City Hall. And I am curious about Best Practices of City Management if this is one of them.”
O’Connor’s pressure intensified. She sent another email to Gould threatening to go to the press. In yet another she warns that she’ll “be sharing this with others in the community” to rally opposition to Elizabeth “being in this position.”
The multi-pronged attack was effective. Gould, who testified he was “very close with Mayor O’Connor,” was clearly worried he had angered her, responding: “Pam, I need you to know I would never knowingly do anything to hurt you… I am depressed over this.” In another email: “You are not under attack from City Hall. We all view you with the greatest respect and admiration… If you and the Council have lost confidence in me as a result of this hiring decision, then I will tender my resignation.”
Ultimately, Gould buckled to O’Connor, writing that he was “moving toward a decision to retract the job offer.”
Gould fired Elizabeth the weekend before she was to begin her job. He immediately called Debbie Lee, Vice-President of Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. and formerly with the Visitors and Convention Bureau and offered her the position. Lee accepted with alacrity. Lee had not gone through any part of the nationwide selection process that Elizabeth had gone through, but evidently that didn’t matter.
And what about the SMCLC political mailer that O’Connor raised as a basis for firing Elizabeth; the mailer Ms. O’Conner referred to in an email as “a hit piece”? O’Connor was shown this mailer at her deposition. She was unable to identify a single statement in it that was inaccurate. It bears repeating: O’Connor could not point to one word in the SMCLC mailer that was untrue. She just didn’t like it.
This is a serious matter. Under our City Charter form of government, no matter how much a councilmember disagrees with a city manager, they cannot cross the inviolate line that gives the city manager exclusive, sole power in hiring and firing decisions. Nor can they secretly and privately pressure the city manager, as was done here. A councilmember's only legitimate recourse is to seek a review of the city manager in a council session.
SMCLC will ask the City for a full investigation as to whether O’Connor’s actions and interference in this matter violated our City Charter. It’s also important for our new City Manager and the City Council to review what happened here in order to ensure that such prohibited interference is not allowed to happen again.
No one should be above the law. Those we elect must be held accountable to the public they serve.
Victor, Diana, Sherrill, Jeff