Michelle Rex, the former deputy to City Councilmember John D’Amico, has sued the City of West Hollywood, alleging she was fired for her role as a witness in an investigation into a colleague’s allegations of harassment and improper electioneering.
That colleague, fellow deputy Ian Owens, recently settled his lawsuit with the city for $500,000. Owens had alleged that he was wrongfully suspended on false allegations of spying on a colleague when he was actually trying to report unlawful activity by her. Owens also alleged that Duran sexually harassed him instead of helping him get the city to investigate the purported illegal activity. In its settlement, the city said the settlement was not a concession that Owens’s claims were true but an effort to avoid the expense of a lengthy court trial. City Attorney Mike Jenkins said an independent investigation of the matter commissioned by the city found no evidence that Duran engaged in sexual harassment, as Owens had alleged.
Rex, who served as D’Amico’s election campaign manager before being named his deputy, filed the lawsuit today in Los Angeles Superior Court seeking unspecified damages on allegations of wrongful discharge, retaliation and failure to prevent retaliation. She is being represented by attorney Aanand Mehtani, who also represented Owens.
A representative for Jenkins & Hogin, the law firm that handles legal matters for West Hollywood, did not immediately reply to a request for comment. Lisa Belsanti, the city’s spokesperson, said the city received notice of the suit today and is in the process of reviewing it.
The suits by Rex and Owens, who were known as friends at City Hall, are in response to a decision by the City Council in June of last year to eliminate the five-member deputy system. The system has long seen as flawed by City Hall insiders and was unparalleled in California cities of a similar organization and size. Its dysfunction became public last year when WEHOville revealed that Ian Owens was the author of an email message sent under a fake name alleging that Fran Solomon, then deputy to Councilmember Heilman, was using her office phone to promote Heilman’s re-election campaign. Owens was suspended while the city investigated the matter. Solomon, who complained that her conversations were being improperly monitored, also has filed a claim against the city alleging that she was the victim of bullying, harassment, intimidation and defamation by D’Amico, Rex and Owens. Solomon retired after Heilman’s defeat in the March 2015 Council election. Heilman rejoined the Council after winning a seat in the June special election.
The revelations about Owens and Solomon brought forth other accusations of animosity between Rex and Solomon that reflected the contentious relationship between their bosses, D’Amico and Heilman. Also revealed was the fact that some deputies arrived at work late and left early, interfered in the work of other city employees and weren’t responsive to the needs of local residents, a key part of the job. Some West Hollywood residents became particularly upset about the compensation of the deputies. The 2014 salary and benefits of Owens totaled about $150,000 while that of Rex totaled about $190,000.
According to Rex’s complaint, she gave statements to a private investigator hired by the city to look into Owens’s allegations about Duran and Solomon. “Ms. Rex also independently made complaints related to improper solicitation and electioneering,” according to her court papers.
But instead of taking her complaints seriously and implementing a plan to correct the problems, the Council and the city administration “decided to try to sweep these major injustices and unlawful activities under the rug,” the suit alleges.
The city fired Rex and Owens “under the guise that such terminations were part of a restructuring of the deputy program,” the suit alleges. It claims the restructuring was never discussed publicly before Owens made his accusations about Heilman’s office, and just he and Rex were affected by the firings because they were the only full-time deputies on the job at the time, according to the complaint. The city actually did not formally eliminate the deputy system until after months of negotiation with the five-member deputy union. During that time Rex and Owens, while not working for the city, remained on the payroll.
City officials were “warned time and again” that their actions were “unfair and unlawful” and that they needed to investigate the harassment and electioneering complaints in a “truly independent manner,” the suit alleges. “Ultimately, they could not be bothered to uphold the city’s professed core values and do the right thing,” the suit says.
Rex routinely worked up to 80 hours a week, and she could have transitioned to a senior administrative role for the rest of her career had D’Amico left the council, the suit states. “Now, Ms. Rex, who once had such a promising career at the city, finds herself out of a job and with an unclear future as a result of the city’s misconduct.”