By DEREK MOORE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The ouster of Sonoma County’s animal care and control director has mushroomed into a drawn-out public fight that has moved the issue well beyond the fate of one middle manager.
County officials say the public outcry over Amy Cooper’s dismissal will fast-track discussions over whether the division she once headed should remain under the purview of the Agricultural Commissioner or become a separate department, as some have advocated for years.
“I anticipate this will be something that will come up in the short-term,” said County Administrator Veronica Ferguson.
Such a re-organization could be interpreted as a blow to Ag Commissioner Cathy Neville, whose decision to fire Cooper on July 12 — 48 hours before Cooper’s yearlong probationary status was to expire — was widely criticized by animal care employees and officials at other animal welfare organizations.
The controversy likely will gain a wider audience on Sunday thanks to a large ad that is scheduled to appear in The Press Democrat. The ad, which supports Cooper’s re-instatement, features the photo of a sad-looking dog with the word “Wrong” written above it.
Several agencies and individuals who support Cooper’s return are listed on the ad, among them the Sonoma Humane Society, Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue, Healdsburg Animal Shelter and Pets Lifeline.
Animal care employees, working with the Service Employees International Union, Local 1021, raised the nearly $5,000 to pay for the ad.
The union’s support of an ousted manager represents a unique twist on the usual order of things. Union spokesman Carlos Rivera said this particular issue involves principles of “justice and fairness” that transcends traditional employee-manager boundaries.
“We always advocate for things that are working well to continue working well,” Rivera said Wednesday.
Cooper’s supporters also plan to attend the supervisors’ meeting on Tuesday and air their concerns during the public comment period. Ferguson called such a public outcry “rare” in her experience as a county administrator.
Asked on Wednesday if Neville continues to have her support, Ferguson did not directly reference the animal care controversy but instead praised Neville for her department’s efforts to contain an outbreak of the European grapevine moth.
“To that extent, it’s really critical that we have someone with Cathy’s expertise leading that quarantine challenge,” Ferguson said.
County supervisors, in the meantime, are being roped into the debate after they early on expressed their desire to stay out of what they viewed as a private personnel matter.
Ferguson said she will outline several options for supervisors in closed session on Tuesday, including the possibility of bringing Cooper back.
“It’s not rocket science that there is a group of people that want to rehire Amy. That would be one option the board would want to talk to Cathy about,” Ferguson said.
Such a move would represent a direct rebuke to Neville, who serves at the discretion of supervisors. Should supervisors back Neville, that would surely anger animal control employees, who earlier sent letters of protest to supervisors demanding Cooper’s return.
Employees on Wednesday were scheduled to wrap up a third day of one-on-one meetings with a county official Ferguson designated to lead her investigation into Cooper’s dismissal.
Cooper earned $101,916 annually and was an at-will employee, which meant she could be dismissed for any reason without explanation. She has no right to appeal the decision.
Cooper claims she was given no reasons for why she was being let go. County officials, including Neville, have refused to discuss the matter, citing laws pertaining to personnel issues.
Ferguson said her office contacted Cooper this week to attempt to schedule an interview with the former animal care director.
Cooper on Wednesday declined to comment other than to say she is undecided as to whether she will agree to be interviewed.