By DEREK MOORE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sonoma County’s top executive is expected to ask supervisors Tuesday for approval to hire another consultant for the Animal Care and Control division, a request that comes as the county grapples with an unprecedented budget crisis.
The request also follows at least two in-depth investigations of the animal care division in the past four years, including a 2006 audit that cost taxpayers $65,000.
A county official said another consultant is needed because previous examinations did not deal directly with the ramifications of separating animal control from the Agricultural Commissioner’s Office.
That possibility is being floated following Agricultural Commissioner Cathy Neville’s controversial decision to abruptly fire Animal Control director Amy Cooper on July 12, 48 hours before Cooper’s yearlong probationary status was to expire.
The request to hire a consultant is likely to spark debate, as the county struggled to close a $62 million deficit in the general fund this fiscal year and is borrowing $290 million to pay off unfunded pension obligations.
“The reason for the recommendation is to make sure that we bring in the resources we need to do a thorough analysis of animal control and make sure it’s going in the right direction,” county spokesman Jim Leddy said Monday. “There’s always concern for spending money in this climate.”
Leddy could not provide an estimate of what the consultant would cost taxpayers.
In addition to that fee, County Administrator Veronica Ferguson is seeking 60 days before going back to supervisors with a recommendation for what to do with animal control.
The search for Cooper’s replacement, in the meantime, is on hold.
Cooper’s abrupt departure sparked protest and calls for her re-instatement among animal care employees and officials at other animal welfare organizations.
Neither Neville nor other county officials have publicly stated the reasons why the ag commissioner fired Cooper. They said personnel rules prevent them from such disclosure.
A county staff report prepared at Ferguson’s direction paints a positive image of the animal care division under Cooper’s watch.
The report, which is based on a county official’s interviews with animal control staff and other stakeholders, found that the agency is benefitting from greater transparency and credibility, that customer service has improved, that euthanasia rates have dropped and that community outreach is ongoing.
Those findings represent a sharp reversal of the conclusions contained in a 2006 Citygate report that was critical of animal control operations.
There were signs that the department was overcoming some of these challenges prior to Cooper’s hiring in 2009.
For instance, a 2008-09 county grand jury report concluded that a change in management coupled with efforts made by employees had rendered much of the concern moot.
“The Grand Jury believes that it is time for the public to recognize and appreciate the good work being done by AC&C,” the report stated.
Cooper’s supporters said she was building upon that recent success. They included Supervisor Valerie Brown, chairwoman of the board, who in April lauded Cooper publicly for helping to turn around the animal control division.
Should the agency be moved, it could result in Neville losing a significant amount of managerial oversight because 32 of the 63 employees who currently report to the agricultural commissioner’s office are assigned to animal control.