The firing of a public affairs and communications officer before her first day on the job has led to the planned lawsuit and the calling of an investigation by Santa Monica residents.
About a dozen members of the public addressed the dais at the Tuesday City Council meeting, mostly in support of Elizabeth Riel, a 10-year Santa Monica resident who was hired as a public affairs and communication officer but had her job offer revoked allegedly because of a campaign contribution she made in 2006.
According to attorney Steven J. Kaplan, Riel alleged City Hall “violated her First Amendment rights of free speech and association by rescinding her employment contract because in 2006 she made a monetary contribution to the efforts of the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City to oppose a large real estate development in the city.”
“The First Amendment to our Constitution guarantees every American the right to exercise free speech,” Kaplan said. “The right to engage in civic activities, and the right to make political contributions, are among the most sacred rights we have as citizens. The City of Santa Monica’s unlawful termination of Ms. Riel’s contract was a blatant violation of those rights.”
Kaplan added Riel beat out more than 220 candidates for the position at City Hall. According to Kaplan, Riel had 15-plus years of experience in communications.
“I am afraid that the actions by the City of Santa Monica will discourage other community members, as well as Californians across the state, from getting involved and making a difference in their own communities, because they fear that government agencies may later retaliate against them,” Riel said.
Her lawsuit against the City of Santa Monica is anticipated to be filed within the next few days and, according to Kaplan, would allege First Amendment violations and breach of contract.
In response to the firing, City Manager Rod Gould issued an extensive response via email detailing the rational for withdrawing Riel’s job offer. The position was within Gould’s department.
“It is essential that members of my office and the department heads serve all residents, community groups and the City Council members equally and fairly,” Gould stated. “We must park our political opinions at the door each day. We must be politically astute, but apolitical. We cannot be viewed as political players or politically aligned with any particular leaders or interest groups.”
He added while an individuals political preference or activity would not impact a “vast majority of City positions,” the public affairs and communications officer is unique in that he or she “must interact with all members of the City Council, various community leaders, the media, other legislators and serve as the official spokesperson for City government.”
Gould also stated that he consulted with the City Attorney’s office before making the decision to withdraw Riel’s offer.
Still, a few members of the public expressed their respective disagreement of Gould’s decision before the closed session portion of the June 10 meeting and asked for the council to initiate an independent investigation into Gould’s decision.
Santa Monica resident Caroline Kunitz called the revocation of Riel’s job offer as “illegal and anti-American.”
Representing the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC), Diane Gordon said the decision to revoke Riel’s job offer was the “result of a personal, political vendetta of the Mayor.”
During the public testimony, Mayor Pam O’Connor and council members Bob Holbrook and Ted Winterer were not present.
Riel reportedly contributed to a SMCLC mailer campaign in 2006, which apparently was critical of O’Connor, a candidate for the City Council that year.
There was no discussion or deliberation of the personnel matter on the dais.