Hueston: you have a problem

In my post last week I wrote about certain aspects of John Hueston’s report to the Santa Monica City Council on the Elizabeth Riel firing and the Oaks Initiative. Last Tuesday evening Hueston presented his report to the council. There was a public hearing where members of the public gave their views, mostly about O’Connor’s culpability in the firing of Riel or, alternatively, her virtues as a longtime councilmember and regional leader.

As for Hueston’s report, he makes some good recommendations. For one, Hueston recommends that the City use, except in unusual circumstances, a formal interview process when hiring “at will” (i.e., non-civil service) employees, and identify ahead of time whether a position is politically sensitive, to allow questions in the interview process about applicants’ histories of political activities specifically relating to councilmembers with whom they may need to interact. The latter recommendation more or less tracks the law as Federal District Judge Beverly Reid O’Connell described it in her rejection of Santa Monica’s motion to dismiss Riel’s complaint; she said that if political history (or lack thereof) is going to be factor in whether someone is going to be hired, that has be made clear as part of the job description.

Moving onto the Oaks Initiative, Hueston made an excellent and common sense suggestion that enforcement of the law be entrusted to an attorney in the Criminal Division of the City Attorney’s office. Although under the City Attorney’s purview, the Criminal Division nearly always operates independently and in any case does not give legal advice to the City Council. Having a designated attorney in the Criminal Division, who would not report to the City Attorney on Oaks matters, would seem to solve the problem of the City Attorney having conflicts of interest when investigating councilmembers.

In last week’s post about Hueston’s report I wrote about how Hueston was able to interview City Attorney Marsha Moutrie and shed more light on the interplay between her and City Manager Rod Gould preceding Gould’s decision to fire Riel. Hueston also interviewed people who had been involved in the Riel hiring process, but who had not given depositions in the lawsuit. Information from them has given us a better understanding of what Riel’s mindset might have been when, in the fateful phone call of May 23, 2014 with Gould, he asked her to explain why she had not revealed her past political activities in the interview process. It was her answer to Gould’s question, namely that she had disclosed her political past, that angered him and led to her being fired.

Why did Riel answer that way? The answer now seems to be that Riel had in fact disclosed her past political activities, or had at least disclosed enough to believe in good faith that she had been open about them. On page 13 of his report Hueston recounts testimony from a member of the panel that interviewed Riel for the job (a panelist who requested anonymity) that this panelist supported Riel for the job precisely because Riel had been upfront about her past involvement in Santa Monica politics (and that this showed she was comfortable with politics). Although the panelist could not recall if Riel’s disclosures extended to disclosing that she had worked on campaigns for councilmembers (or against them, as in the case of O’Connor), this could easily explain why Riel had in that phone call with Gould told him that she had disclosed her political activities.

It’s too bad that Gould did not know about what Riel had disclosed in the interview process. If he had, he might have been able to diffuse O’Connor or at least not become angry himself. As it is, again this is evidence that rule number one should be that if there is a process, then trust it.

One gripe I have about Hueston’s report is that he didn’t interview Riel, who would have been able to tell Hueston what she disclosed during the hiring process. The reason Hueston gives is that Riel requested compensation for her time, as well as that her attorney be paid to attend the interview. In Hueston’s opinion he already had enough testimony from Riel from her lawsuit deposition and the City didn’t need to spend the money. In my opinion, Riel’s requests were perfectly reasonable, and I don’t understand why Hueston (or if he didn’t have the authority, whoever did) didn’t authorize the expenditure. The City is paying something like $400,000 (or more) for Hueston’s investigation; it would have been worth a few thousand dollars more to hear from the person who was at the center of the controversy, particularly with respect to questions that didn’t come up in her deposition.

Alas, the upshot is that Riel comes across as mercenary, which is unfair. As I said, her requests for compensation and for her lawyer’s presence in the interview were reasonable. After enduring litigation, even if you prevail, there’s no reason to be philanthropic with the other side, and you certainly shouldn’t talk to them without your lawyer. I haven’t agreed much with Diana Gordon, of the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City, about the Riel controversy, but Gordon was 100% correct when she spoke Tuesday night about how in all the uproar about O’Connor and Gould, we tend to forget what a victim Riel was.

While I would never call City Attorney Marsha Moutrie a victim, she is being victimized by a growing meme that she was grossly incompetent in not advising Gould that he would violate Riel’s First Amendment rights if he fired her. As I said in my post last week, Moutrie’s advice that Gould could fire Riel because she was an at-will employee turned out to be bad advice when Judge O’Connell rejected, mostly on First Amendment grounds, the City’s motion to dismiss Riel’s complaint. There’s nothing, however, in O’Connell’s ruling, the only legal ruling on these questions I know of in the case, that indicates that the issue was cut and dried.

But that’s not according to how the story is being spun. At Tuesday’s City Council meeting a resident said that according to the ruling any “first year law student” should have known that Gould would violate Riel’s free speech rights if he fired her. That was just the start. By the time, a little later in the evening, that Councilmember Sue Himmelrich was giving her two cents, she said (quoting from the Daily Press’s coverage), “I agree that the federal court did say that even a first grader would know this was a violation of her federal rights.”

I know that all first graders in Santa Monica are brilliant, but this seems to take hyperbole to a new level. In fact, Judge O’Connell had to use 19 closely reasoned, single-spaced pages to conclude that notwithstanding the basic rule that in public employee First Amendment cases public employers have “wide discretion and control over the management of their personnel and internal affairs,” the ultimate burden of proof, after Riel had satisfied a preliminary threshold, was on the City to prove that Riel’s rights had not been violated and the case should go to trial. Even following the rule that on a motion to dismiss everything in a complaint must be viewed in the plaintiff’s favor, O’Connell’s decision was not a slam-dunk. (For more on Judge O’Connell’s ruling, see my post from Oct. 16.)

I word-searched O’Connell’s ruling for “first year” and “first grader” and didn’t come up with any hits. Someone please tell me if there is another ruling in the case I don’t know about, and I’ll correct myself, but until then I’ll attribute Moutrie’s bad advice to human fallibility and the complexity of the law, rather than to not having the legal knowledge of a six-year-old.

Thanks for reading.

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