Day Four: City Manager Arevalo Grilled on Dissolution of WeHo Council Deputy System

West Hollywood City Manager Paul Arevalo, left, with City Councilmember John D’Amico

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.

  1. @Jimmy Whatever shawn may feel, think, say or do … hun, don’t be frightened. He clearly does not have what you appear to feel is an unnatural obsession with you. Commenting on his statements and opinions with a claim of “stalking” crosses a line between an opinion and or feeling and accusing another person of a potential crime. That is not just potentially libel but worries me.. Sweetie ….. perhaps you should talk to someone about your feelings.

  2. >Let’s also remember that the city had to pay out expensive severance packages and half a year’s pay and benefits (if I’m not mistaken). I believe the deputies were paid from June to December of 2015 while their union negotiated with the city.<

    If anyone or any organization should be sued by Ms. Rex it's her union. They spoke for her and apparently with only four union members she must have voted to accept the offer.

  3. Jessica, no, a recall would never happen, not with the recent election, where Duran was re-elected by a substantial margin. If voters cared about this, they wouldn’t have re-elected him then.

    Chris, I don’t know if this is an “anti-gay” angle as much as her team just wanting to share salacious details to embarrass Councilmember Duran. Even if she doesn’t win this lawsuit, I’m sure she wants her team to get the details out there, as part of her revenge.

    Don, yes, the city should have done something about this dysfunctional system a long time ago. I don’t think this is grounds for Arevalo’s termination, even though I think they should have fixed the system long before it lead to all of this drama. Let’s also remember that the city had to pay out expensive severance packages and half a year’s pay and benefits (if I’m not mistaken). I believe the deputies were paid from June to December of 2015 while their union negotiated with the city. I don’t believe any of this was covered by insurance, and all of this could have been avoided.

    In the end, when it comes to this lawsuit, Larry Block is correct. Her argument that there was some type of conspiracy against her and Owens is very weak. Much of the public had had it with the deputy system. It was a discussion in the election. And her own boss voted to dismantle it. Lindsey Horvath put the proposal up before the Council, and she argues that Horvath only did that because “she is an ally of Heilman.” How is she going to prove that?

    I’m sure the city wouldn’t have went to court over this if they thought her suit had any merit, or any chance of winning.

  4. Don – the reason is clear. Under the bad deputy system, which she likely was appalled by, these were political appointees, and thus far less under her control. It’s a key reason the system was abolished.
    I don’t get the cognitive dissonance of those who use this as a cudgel vs Aravelo when it was clearly a system he had problems with but beyond getting it changed he couldn’t control.

  5. Ultimately the CEO of any organization is to be held responsible for what goes on under their watch and Arevalo should be no exception. How many employee lawsuits are needed before three council members vote to replace Arevalo and rid the city of the drama?

    LuNita Bock was the Human Resource Manager when Owens was hired and the Director of Administrative Services (includes human resources) when the dissolution of the deputy system happened. Her compensation the year Owens was hired was $216,349 and $319,080 when the deputies were terminated. Much of these issues reported on fall under human resources and it reads as if this very well paid person was not up to the job.

  6. Jessica – to state the obvious the voters of West Hollywood reelected Duran with this information (none of which is new) fully aired a few months ago. They knew what they were getting and preferred him to the absurd Blatt and Martin. Deal with it already. We have a democracy, it worked, and Duran was re-elected. Sorry you don’t like the result but it is arrogant for you to demand a redo once again.

  7. The day started early and as we passed in the hall It was kind of cool when the city’s attorney shook my hand. There were a few new people at yesterday’s trial including Manny Rodriguez and Steve Martin.. as well as James Mills and Henry Scott. At lunch break we had lunch on the roof of the courthouse with its spectacular views over LA.

    Paul was on the stand all day. Grilling is a good word. Plaintiffs attorney had books and books and books of documents. So many questions off the core of the complaint. He is clearly trying to muddy the waters with so much smut that the jury loses sight of the core issue. Was Rex ‘retaliated’ against.

    The day before I spoke to the city attorney about the candidates forum in which the question of the elimination of the deputy system was not a ‘city hall’ driven initiative, but rather a ‘community driven’ question throughout the election and public discussion took place. Rex’s attorney tried to make it seem like this was implemented as a vendetta and never discussed. But the reflection of the election season renewed the public discussion in which many candidates called for the elimination of the deputy system.

    Paul was cool, calm, collected. He came across as sturdy and strong. Honest and Opaque. Experienced and Professional. And then end of day.. the testy questions.. ‘it happened because you weren’t doing your job’ and the reply ‘he had no oversight over the deputies they reported to their council person, it was the program, not the people. I am so proud of our city manager and the way he conducted himself. Say that again, with a tear in the eye, I am so proud of our city manager and the way he conducted himself.

    Belanti in the morning and perhaps Duran in the afternoon. Paul said to some of us ‘don’t you all have something better to do?’ and the answer is no. Lets win one for the city.

  8. Excellent report. Arevalo clearly destroyed Rex’s case, but their strategy is clear – make a non WeHo jury punish WeHo for being gay.

  9. Rex’s attorney should ask WEHO Councilman John Duran, also an attorney, and litigator if he did a background check on Owens.

    If Duran had a client, who said he was going to hire someone he had sex with on Grindr to be a public servant red flags would go up for any competent counsel. But not Duran for this ludicrous trial is playing out like “Love strikes Andy Hardy or John Duran.” Duran falsely pitches himself as the Mayor of West Hollywood to Ian Owens, when he wasn’t, talks to Owens about glory holes, large packages, and three ways.

    Owens actions can be excused for youth, the Grindr “interview” by Duran took place when the deputy was in his mid-20s. But Duran is 57 and, from his Grindr habits even after the sexual harassment lawsuit, costing WEHO half a million dollars, indicate the city councilman seems more immature than Owens.

    Duran took an oath to uphold the US Constitution and on a local level primarily to protect the interests of the city and its citizens.

    WEHO has term limits but maybe it is time to recall Duran. He’s a sad embarrassment.

    Afterall, politicians and diapers have one thing in common. They should both be changed regularly, and for the same reason.

  10. Duran should of resigned when it came to light his prior relationship with Owens. He set this ball rolling. Why he didn’t do the honorable thing has left many in the community stunned at his seeming idea that he is above what in the private sector would be grounds for termination. And to this day we still see its effect both on the city’s reputation and the ideals of a gay man in leadership. In the end ” Deputy gate” is a term that was created here on weho-ville,. No where else. And as been revealed the top staff at city hall are paid the max allowable by law under their civil service job codes. In fact some are over the max;s If city hall is so dysfunction firing all the deputy’s was a nice effort to pivot from the deeper organizational flaws that are apparent in this building. Maybe its time to look into the deeper story which is City Hall Gate?

  11. John Duran set this ball and motion and still has a council seat? What was his discipline, by the city manager?

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