Sonoma County’s top executive wants the Animal Care and Control Division to be moved to another county department and fall under new management, an extraordinary development stemming from a director’s controversial firing.
County Administrator Veronica Ferguson will ask county supervisors at their meeting Tuesday to approve moving animal care from the Agricultural Commissioner’s Office to the Department of Public Health by Oct. 1.
If approved, the move would effectively strip Agricultural Commissioner Cathy Neville of nearly half of her agency’s annual budget of $8.67 million, as well as roughly half of the department’s 63 employees.
Neville’s controversial decision to fire former animal care director Amy Cooper on July 12, two days before Cooper’s yearlong probationary status was to expire, sparked widespread protest among animal control employees and officials at other animal welfare agencies.
But Ferguson on Thursday again reiterated her support for Neville, despite the county administrator’s efforts to reduce the ag commissioner’s role.
Ferguson said Neville, whose contract with the county runs through December 2012, would continue to earn her base salary of $132,000 annually. That amount does not include compensation Neville receives for benefits, a car allowance and other perks.
Ferguson also on Thursday again characterized Cooper’s firing as simply the catalyst for change that she said has been discussed for years.
“The release of Amy Cooper was the trigger event that gave us the opportunity to look at the appropriate location for the division,” Ferguson said. “Something occurred that caused us to pause and say, ‘We need to finish this work.’”
At the Century Court animal shelter on Thursday, a county analyst informed employees about Ferguson’s recommendation. The response was positive, according to supervising animal control officer Bob Garcia, who is the department’s interim manager.
He called the move to public health a “good fit,” saying the two agencies already work together in areas such as the diagnosis and control of rabies.
County officials said in their research they found that most counties of similar size to Sonoma County combine animal control with public health.
Longer-term, Ferguson is recommending that supervisors explore the possibility of the county entering into a joint powers agreement with other agencies to operate animal control.
Supervisor Shirlee Zane said she supports the recommendations.
“I think there obviously has been a lot of angst over the issue of the director leaving,” she said. “I think we need to move on and have some healing.”
But even some who applauded the recommended change also criticized county officials for what they say is their continued failure to address calls for Cooper to get her job back.
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.
“Moving the department out of ag is the first step. To totally make things right, the county needs to bring Amy Cooper back,” said Sheri Cardo, a Petaluma animal welfare advocate and former public information officer for the Marin Humane Society.
She also questioned the wisdom of moving animal care temporarily to public health if the county’s ultimate goal is to make it a separate department.
“This is the opportunity to do things right, so if they are going to move it, and they should, they need to make it a stand-alone department,” Cardo said. “It’s going to be a major disruption to put it under a new department head and then move it down the line.”
The county’s staff report on the proposed move acknowledges a “significant drop in morale” within the animal care division following Cooper’s departure.
The 17-page report, which was based largely on exhaustive interviews with animal care employees, noted that adoptions at the county’s shelter on Century Court appear to be going up, that euthanasia rates are dropping and that spay and neuter programs are becoming more robust.
But the report also found room for improvement, particularly with the collection of data to better determine the accuracy of those apparent positive trends.
Whether Cooper will play a role in the transition remains unclear.
She declined comment on Thursday, and her attorney did not return calls.
Ferguson said Health Services Director Rita Scardaci, who would oversee animal care if it is moved, could open up the hiring process for a new director or simply choose from applicants already on file, including Cooper.
“I’m going to trust her (Scardaci) to make that decision,” Ferguson said.
If Cooper needs a job reference, she can get one from Kiska Icard, executive director of the Sonoma Humane Society.
“Absolutely,” Icard said Thursday. “I think she was valuable to the county. I think she would be an asset to any organization that had a director’s position available.”