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Santa Monica's Big Boss Addresses Recent Hiring Controversy

He recently withdrew a job offer to Elizabeth Riel for a position as communications and public affairs officer. Here's what he can say about it.

Ron Gould. Photo courtesy the city of Santa Monica.
Ron Gould. Photo courtesy the city of Santa Monica.

A message from City Manager Ron Gould about the recent hiring, then retraction of that offer, of a public affairs and communications officer:

“My recent decision to withdraw a job offer to Elizabeth Riel for a position in my office as Communications and Public Affairs Officer has caused some in the community to raise questions. 

Because this is a personnel matter involving a hiring decision, I am not able to discuss various details of the decision.  I respect the privacy and other rights involved.  I offer this general statement by way of explanation. 

Members of my office, department directors, and I must always exhibit the highest levels of competency, professionalism, integrity, and political neutrality in order to be effective in our roles.

The Council-Manager form of government has served the people of Santa Monica well for more than half a century.  The people choose their councilmembers to represent them.  The City Council makes policy and sets the direction of the City of Santa Monica.  The City Council in turn hires the City Manager to impartially oversee the implementation of Council policy and the overall management and administration of municipal services, as well as most of the City workforce.   The Council appoints and hires only three individuals in our system: City Manager, City Attorney, and City Clerk. 

The Council-Manager form of government sprang from the Progressive era early in the last century.  The aim then as now was largely to remove political patronage, favoritism, nepotism and old school Tammany Hall-type politics from the employment of city workers and the general running of cities.  The goal then - as now - was that professional, non-elected officials who serve at the highest level of city government must be viewed as nonpartisan and unaffiliated with political groups or individuals.  

In Santa Monica, the merit system is the basis of employment for most of the general workforce – the vast majority of which is in the civil service system.  Not all positions are in civil service.  A few positions, such as the Council-appointed officials, the department directors and members of my office, who I appoint, serve “at-will,” which is how most non-governmental workers in the country are also employed. 

It is essential that members of my office and the department heads serve all residents, community groups and the City Councilmembers equally and fairly.  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. 

We are also called upon to provide policy advice to the Council and Commissions and do so in the best interest to the community as a whole.  When policy decisions are made – they become our marching orders, and we implement, explain, and defend them as if they were our own.  That is what is required of professional local government managers. 

For the vast majority of City positions, one’s political activity at any level would not be of question or concern.  What matters is performance, the highest level of ethical standards and adherence to all laws and regulations.  The duties of the Communications and Public Affairs Officer are different from most other positions in that this person 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.  To have the trust of all involved, this person must be free of all political alliances. 

Kate Vernez, who recently retired from a similar position, epitomized political neutrality.  At a ceremony to thank her for her service recently, residents, community leaders and current and former councilmembers of all views came together to celebrate her.  They did so because they respected her for her unqualified and uniform respect for them.  She was able to work across the political spectrum with people holding widely divergent views.  Kate remained impartial and was regarded as being so while implementing City Council policy.  That is what I need and expect from whoever replaces Kate.  I would not knowingly hire anyone who is partisan or who has a strong history of being so for this position, regardless of his or her views. 

To those who question the legality or process, please know that I consulted closely with the City Attorney, Assistant City Attorney, Human Resources Director and Assistant City Manager throughout the process to make certain that it was handled appropriately.  It was. 

I regret that I had to make the decision to revoke the offer of employment.  And, I regret that I can’t say more.  But, as I noted earlier, it is a personnel matter.  So, I cannot.”

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