The trial last month of Michelle Rex vs. City of West Hollywood was quite fascinating. The City Manager, all City Council members and a number of city employees testified over the two-week trial, as did Paul Brotzman, who was our first city manager in 1985. Michelle Rex also testified, as did Ian Owens, her friend and fellow council deputy as well as Fran Soloman and a bunch of experts.
The “Deputygate” mess resulted in lots of hearsay and rumors. Here are some of the facts that came out at trial:
Was Fran Solomon violating the law by “electioneering” from her City Council office on behalf of her boss, Councilmember (and now Mayor) John Heilman?
Ian Owens, deputy to Councilmember John Duran, claimed that she was electioneering in an email that he sent under a fake name to the news media and the L.A. County District Attorney. Owens also claimed that he had heard Solomon soliciting financial contributions in November and December of 2014 from her office.
The facts- as presented at trial showed that Solomon was making calls to round-up participants for a photo shoot for her boss’s campaign mailer. She may have answered some calls on a Monday from people who returned calls she had made over the weekend from home to solicit campaign donations.
None of that was a violation of state law. But it was a violation of city regulations. Solomon confessed that she had crossed the line. She was reprimanded, and had two days of her pay docked.
As for making calls from her office in November to solicit donations? Well, Solomon was on medical leave that entire month, so Owens testimony clearly wasn’t true.
Did Ian Owens lose his job as a City Council deputy because the deputy system was abolished, or because he ratted out Fran Solomon for her phone calls or complained about sexual harassment by his boss, Councilmember John Duran?
Actually, it was Solomon’s allegation that Owens had been spying on her by listening to her calls that led to a deeper investigation by a private investigator and some digging by Human Resources. Owens was fired when it was discovered that he had lied in his application for the City Hall deputy position. Contrary to his claims, Owens had not graduated from college. And he had been fired by his previous employer.
Owens also admitted that he had never complained about sexual harassment to any city official or through any Human Resources channel. A private investigator Steve Rodig was hired by the city for an independent evaluation of Solomon claims. It should be noted that the Rodig report found that Duran’s comments were inappropriate but there was no evidence of any sexual harassment.
Does the City of West Hollywood have a sexual harassment policy? And what can an employee do if he or she faces such harassment?
I learned through the trial about how employees of the city have various avenues to register a complaint. The city’s current sexual harassment policy was created in 1997 and still stands today. Employees with complaints have access to an outside “ombudsperson” who can be contacted with a harassment complaint without anyone in City Hall knowing who is making the complaint.
Did the City Council vote in June 2015 to eliminate the deputy system because of some of the scandalous accusations revealed in the private investigator’s report (which cost almost $50,000)?
John D’Amico and John Heilman brought forth a proposal in March 2015 to consider modernizing or eliminating the deputy system. (Heilman, one of the city’s first council members, voted against the deputy system when it was implemented 33 years ago). The D’Amico/Heilman proposal was tabled when Heilman lost his re-election bid in March 2015. Newly elected Councilmember (and then Mayor) Lindsey Horvath put it back on the agenda in June 2015, after Heilman was re-elected to fill a seat vacated by Jeffrey Prang and the entire council was constituted.
As for all the allegations in the Rodig report– To date only one council member has seen an unredacted version of the report (many of the interviews with city staffers couldn’t be disclosed for personnel and privacy reasons). The one council member with access to the full Rodig report was John Duran, who was a party in a lawsuit filed by Ian Owens against the city and his boss. And he is the only one that was personally aware that the Rodig report found no evidence of sexual harassment.
So the City Council members voted to eliminate the deputy system because of complaints about it from City Hall staffers and local residents. Only newly elected Councilmember Lauren Meister voted against eliminating the system. In her testimony, Meister said she had voted against eliminating system because “she didn’t know her way around City Hall” when she was elected and needed the help of her deputy, Scott Schimdt, who was her election campaign manager.
Is the system that replaced the deputy system, where a team of employees serves all of the council members, a failure, as some have claimed?
Actually each of the five City Council members who testified in the trial said they were mostly happy with the new system, although several said some additional work is needed so that it completely addresses council and constituent needs.
Will City Councilmember John D’Amico run for re-election in 2019?
D’Amico has consistently said he won’t seek re-election. And during the Rex trial, after being sworn in to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” D’Amico again declared he won’t run again. It should also be noted that Rex was asking for damages that included her deputy salary until the age of 65. But if D’Amico did not run and Rex has not applied for a new position at city hall then any damages would be limited to D’Amico’s term in office.
And what has Michelle Rex been doing since she was formally taken off the city payroll in December 2015?
While Rex was in the midst of suing the City of West Hollywood over various claims she also testified to working on Cynthia Blatt’s campaign for West Hollywood City Council. Since then Rex has been working on Robert Lee Ahn’s campaign for election to the U.S. House of Representatives for California’s 34th District.
Rex hasn’t talked with John D’Amico, who testified that she was an exemplary employee and he admired and missed her. Rex also has not spoken with John Duran, who testified that he and Rex had been good friends who went to Disneyland together (and did some dancing on a table in New Orleans according to a photo shown to the jury.)
Despite all the testimony about nasty fights among deputies and other salacious accusations we learned a few good things too. When John Heilman took the stand he testified as to the origin of the deputy system, a new “gay” city flooded with media stories and the outset of AIDS that would wreak havoc on our LGBT community.
Heilman explained how we began our affordable housing program and how we took care of our seniors with various programs. Heilman’s testimony clearly showed the challenges of local government facing constituent needs. His historic and cohesive perspective of a young city with challenges was moving and heartfelt. It was at this point the jury saw clearly that West Hollywood is a non-discriminatory, big-hearted city that strives to be inclusive and care for all its constituents and the employees who work for the city.
The elimination of the deputy system was part of the process of moving forward. Despite all the noise and challenges with the elimination of the deputy system there was only one motive in its elimination. The motive was to improve constituent services to the residents of West Hollywood. And in that regard the residents of West Hollywood are the clear winners.