By DEREK MOORE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Despite a troubled history that has brought high-profile attention to Sonoma County’s animal shelter, neither County Administrator Veronica Ferguson or supervisors knew in advance that the agency’s top official was losing her job this week.
Nevertheless, Ferguson on Thursday said that she stands behind Agricultural Commissioner Cathy Neville’s decision to remove Amy Cooper as director of Animal Care and Control.
“We’ve chosen to stand by the department head,” Ferguson said.
That support comes amid a growing chorus of criticism within the county shelter and in the network of animal welfare agencies over the decision to remove Cooper from her post.
Twenty seven of the 32 animal control employees submitted letters of protest to county supervisors on Thursday demanding that Cooper be reinstated.
“This was a shock to our department. The Animal Care and Control staff disagrees with this decision,” the letter states.
In a highly unusual move, the signatories included two of the division’s three highest-ranking managers, including Bob Garcia, who was tapped by Neville to lead the organization until a successor for Cooper is found.
“I think all of the employees here really felt very close to Amy,” said Garcia, who has been with the department for 35 years. “Amy was a good manager. I think that they (employees) didn’t really get a good explanation as to why. I think they are just trying to find out.”
Cathy Fenn, who supervises the county’s shelter on Century Court, also signed the letter.
In accordance with county rules, the job of animal care director includes a year of probationary status, which means Cooper, who earned $101,916 annually, was considered an at-will employee and thus could be dismissed for any reason without explanation. She has no right to appeal the decision.
Neville pulled the trigger Monday, 48 hours before Cooper’s probation was to end.
County officials on Thursday broke three days of silence regarding Cooper’s departure but still would not say why she was removed from her position.
“That’s a confidential job performance issue that can’t be shared,” Ferguson said. “If Amy chooses to talk about it, that’s one thing. Clearly, it’s not our role.”
Ferguson responded to the protest letters signed by animal control employees by saying she has an obligation to listen to their concerns.
“I would first encourage the department head to sit down with employees,” she said in reference to Neville. “I have an open-door policy. If they have a concern, I would encourage them to come to me.”
But Ferguson did not appear inclined to overrule Neville and re-instate Cooper, saying that department heads are “individually accountable for running their departments.”
Supervisor Valerie Brown, the board chairwoman, said on Thursday that she “understands why people were taken aback by the decision” to remove Cooper — a decision the Brown said she was not aware of in advance.
Brown declined to go into the reasons why Cooper was removed — calling it a personnel matter — but she addressed comments that she made at a board meeting in April warmly praising Cooper for a “total turn-around” at the shelter.
“I think when we got the report six months ago, there was the sense that things were moving in the right direction,” Brown said Thursday. “I can’t really comment on what happened in the last six months. We haven’t gotten a report from them.”
In reality, it’s only been three months since that meeting, underscoring how quickly Cooper went from being lauded for her work to losing her job.
Cooper has not returned several messages this week seeking comment.
By outward appearances, the animal control division under Cooper’s watch appeared to be meeting the goals set for it by Neville and county supervisors.
In the last quarter of 2009, the rate of animal deaths at the shelter fell to 28 percent from a 43 percent average in fiscal 2008-09. Cooper was roundly praised this week by the leaders of other animal welfare organizations who said she had made strides in developing partnerships to help meet common goals.
Cooper and the Sonoma Humane Society were also on the verge of announcing a partnership using the society’s Highway 12 facility for spay and neuter surgeries, which in theory would lower costs for pet owners, according to Kiska Icard, the society’s executive director.
The program would seem to address one of the issues that supervisors and Neville announced as among their primary concerns: lowering the cost of spay and neuter programs and expanding them to reach a wider segment of the county’s population.
Icard was among the officials at animal welfare organizations to express concern this week about the affect Cooper’s departure would have on their own programs.
Icard on Thursday said Neville told her the county is still committed to the spay and neuter partnership with the Humane Society.
Ferguson said she does not believe that Cooper’s departure will forestall the progress she said has been made at the shelter, which she called one of the county’s most vital programs.
“I don’t see it regressing or moving away from the goals that were outlined by the department heads and by the board with regard to what they want to achieve in animal care,” she said. “If anything, this issue has brought to light the importance of stating and re-stating that the county is committed to quality animal care.”
Ferguson acknowledged Cooper’s role in recent successes but said the full credit belongs to the entire organization.
“Amy certainly was instrumental in making that happen, but I don’t think she was alone in that,” Ferguson said.