The lawyer for former WeHo City Council deputy Michelle Rex spent today grilling City Manager Paul Arevalo about his opinion of the controversial deputy system and whether the dissolution of that system was an act of retaliation against Rex.
Mark Quigley, Rex’s lawyer, pushed Arevalo to explain why the city launched an investigation into allegations by Fran Solomon, deputy to Councilmember John Heilman, that her telephone calls had been monitored by Ian Owens, deputy to Councilmember John Duran, but did not investigate allegations by Owens that his boss sexually harassed him or complaints by Owens and Rex about Solomon’s allegedly improper behavior.
Arevalo’s answer, in short, is that Owens did not complain of sexual harassment until his lawyer raised the allegation in a letter to the city after Owens was put on administrative leave. Owens did allege improper behavior by Solomon, but rather than do that through various established channels, Owens did it in an email sent under a fake name to the L.A. County District Attorney and eight media organizations. Rex also didn’t complain to any city official about Solomon’s behavior or Owens’ allegation of sexual harassment, Arevalo said. It was only Solomon who made an official complaint, which led to the city hiring a private investigator to look into her claim that Owens might have been wiretapping her telephone. (That investigator later looked into the sexual harassment claim). Solomon also claimed that she had been harassed and bullied by Rex and by Councilmember John D’Amico, Rex’s boss.
Arevalo said that as a result of the investigation, Solomon was reprimanded and her pay was docked for two days for making calls soliciting people to appear in a photo shoot for Heilman’s re-election campaign. Making those calls from City Hall was not illegal but was deemed a violation of city rules involving “incidental campaign” activity by city employees.
No action was taken against Rex or Owens, Arevalo said. He said that Owens had been put on paid administrative leave during the investigation into Solomon’s complaints not as punishment but to keep his presence in City Hall from being an obstacle during the investigation. “We investigated the case. When we found out that he didn’t wiretap the office, we reinstated him,” Arevalo said.
The city manager’s testimony came on the fourth day of the trial in L.A. County Superior Court over Rex’s allegation that the 30-year-old City Council deputy system was eliminated in June 2015 in retaliation for her defense of Owens, who has claimed that he was a “whistleblower” for exposing the calls by Solomon. After the deputy system was eliminated Owens sued the city and Duran and received $500,000 in a settlement in which both the city and Duran denied Owens’ charges of retaliation and harassment. According to the city, the decision to settle the Owens charges rather than take them to court was a result of pressure from its insurer.
In her lawsuit, Rex alleges that ending the deputy system has caused her to suffer emotional damage. Because of that and the loss of her job, which paid her as much as $190,000 a year when both salary and benefits are included, she reportedly is seeking $3 million.
Arevalo said that if he had been a City Council member on June 15, 2015, he would have voted in favor of then-Mayor Lindsey Horvath’s proposal to eliminate the deputy system. That proposal passed in a four-to-one vote, with Councilmember (now mayor) Lauren Meister opposing it.
The system “created issues in terms of lines of authority when the council deputies were speaking to staff,” Arevalo said, explaining that city staffers didn’t always know whether they should follow the direction of their supervisors or of a council member’s deputy.
Under the city’s written rules of conduct, the deputies were not supposed to give direction to staff members. “It would cause issues from time to time and I would have to send out emails reminding deputies that they were not supposed to do that,” Arevalo said.
Arevalos said he had faced issues with council deputies since he was named city manager in 2000. “We had a contentious council at the time,” he said.
Arevalo said there were “numerous minor incidents and scuffles, sometimes between council deputies themselves …. We would have council members working on competing items and the council deputies in City Hall would get into shouting matches.”
Arevalo said he viewed one altercation from the dais in the City Council chambers. In that incident, Owens and Scott Svonkin, deputy to Councilmember Jeffrey Prang, got into what Arevalo called a “verbal altercation” during a City Council meeting because Owens was mocking Prang. Arevalo said he couldn’t hear their conversation but could see their angry confrontation from the dais.
Arevalo contested Quigley’s contention that the problems with the deputy system were the fault of the city manager, whose job, Quigley argued, was to manage the deputies. Arevalo noted that the deputies effectively were political appointees, chosen by and reporting to the council members. Arevalo also reiterated statements by LuNita Bock, the city’s former administrative director, that Rex had not applied for any other city jobs while she was on paid leave.
Arevalo said some local residents pushed to eliminate the 30-year-old deputy system after the revelation that Owens was the author of the email about Solomon, which included a document chronicling her telephone calls over two days.
“This was the top news story and none of us were proud of it,” Arevalo said. “We’re considered the beacon on the hill for a lot of people around the world, and having this kind of media coverage diminishes that.”
At a public forum for candidates in the 2015 City Council election, D’Amico said he planned to introduce something to modernize or fix the system. City staff members put together a memo outlining ways to “modernize” the system, which was unprecedented in cities the size of West Hollywood operating under the Council-Manager system of government. That proposal, which went before the council in April, was delayed by the council until after the June 2015 special election, when there would be a full five-member council to consider it.
Arevalo conceded that he had written a memo to newly elected council members Lindsey Horvath and Lauren Meister in March 2015 in which he raised concerns about the deputy program and said he would be putting together a “detailed proposal that would create a Legislative and Community Advocacy Program that reinforces the grassroots nature of the City Council staff, with a stronger ‘in the field presence’. The new concept will have geographical and technical specialties and would be a resource of pooled support staff to all Councilmembers.”
Arevalo said that nevertheless Horvath moved forward with naming Kirin Hashmi, former deputy to Councilmember Abbe Land, as her deputy, and Meister named Scott Schmidt, her election campaign manager, as her temporary deputy.
The deputy system ultimately was eliminated not by Arevalo but at the instigation of newly named Mayor Lindsey Horvath, whose proposal to replace it with a pool of city staffers reporting directly to the city manager or his designee was approved by the council on June 15, 2015.
The trial will resume tomorrow with Lisa Belsanti, the city’s communication director, called as a first witness. Councilmember John Duran also is expected to be called to testify.