By DEREK MOORE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sonoma County supervisors are likely to weigh in next week on the future of the county’s Animal Care and Control Department, a month after the abrupt firing of the department’s director ignited a storm of protest.While details of the board’s discussion were still being hammered out Tuesday, County Administrator Veronica Ferguson said it probably will include options for separating animal care from the Agricultural Commissioner’s Office.
Commissioner Cathy Neville’s decision to dismiss Amy Cooper on July 12 was greeted with widespread criticism from animal care employees and from officials at other animal welfare agencies.
Neville stands to lose significant managerial oversight because 32 of the 63 employees who currently report to her office are assigned to animal care and control.She also likely would suffer a sharp reduction in her agency’s budget, which was $8.67 million for this fiscal year.
Ferguson said Tuesday that the issue does not amount to a referendum on Neville’s job performance. Rather, she and other county officials portrayed it as a re-examination of departments that, in the case of animal control, predated Cooper’s departure.
“What I’ve focused on is what we do well at the shelter, and how do we keep doing it given the strides that we’ve made,” Ferguson said.
However, any discussion of how to reorganize departments does not address concerns of critics who have been clamoring for an explanation of why she fired Cooper 48 hours before Cooper’s year-long probationary status was set to expire.
It also does not address calls that Cooper be re-instated to her job.
Nearly every employee at animal care and control, including the department’s three ranking managers, submitted letters of protest to supervisors demanding Cooper’s re-instatement. Other employees helped pay for a newspaper ad that denounced Cooper’s firing.
Officials at other animal welfare agencies have echoed that sentiment.
Ferguson dispatched a county analyst to interview animal care employees. Those interviews, which are set to wrap up on Thursday, will form the basis of recommendations forwarded to supervisors.
County officials say personnel laws prevent them from publicly discussing either Neville’s job performance or the reasons for her decision to fire Cooper.
Neville, who did not return a call seeking comment Tuesday, already has given her version of events to supervisors in closed door meetings.
Cooper was scheduled to meet with a county human resources manager today for what the county billed as an exit interview.
She declined comment when reached Tuesday. She 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.
Supervisor Valerie Brown, the board’s chairwoman, said she feels “a little more of a comfort level” over the decision Neville made after hearing from the ag commissioner.
But Brown, who in April lauded Cooper publicly for turning around an agency that has had two directors since 2006 and faced a barrage of criticism, said supervisors still are not satisfied with the way Neville handled the situation.
“I would not characterize the meeting with Cathy as being one where she believed the board said, ‘We understand and it’s OK.’ The board is unhappy with what happened,” Brown said.
Still, Brown said it’s “unlikely” that Cooper will be asked to come back.
“We’re actually looking at a broader base of options,” she said.
Supervisor Shirlee Zane said Cooper’s possible return is still “a question mark” and that there are “two sides to every story.”
She said her concern is that supervisors not be perceived as micromanaging a department head.
“I’m not interested in micromanaging them in any way, but at the same time, this issue obviously is not going away,” she said.
West county Supervisor Efren Carrillo declined Tuesday to discuss what he called a personnel matter. But he suggested that he will support moving animal care to another department.
“As it stands, I think there’s a better fit for animal care and control in the county structure,” he said.
Supervisor Mike Kerns declined comment while Supervisor Paul Kelley did not return a phone call.
Ferguson said she does not have a preferred option for what to do with animal care and that she is waiting on the staff report and feedback from supervisors.
County staff also surveyed 38 other California counties and learned that animal care is under the jurisdiction of the ag commissioner’s office in only four of them.
Most of the counties align animal care with their health and human services departments, the analysis found.