By DEREK MOORE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
At least two more investigations are underway that involve Sonoma County’s Agricultural Commissioner’s Office, including one led by a high-powered Sacramento attorney who successfully battled public employee unions on behalf of former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Agricultural Commissioner Cathy Neville has been out of the office on paid leave since Jan. 12. The county continues to pay her salary and benefits, a package that totals $233,514 annually — or about $900 a day.
County Administrator Veronica Ferguson and other officials refuse to discuss Neville’s leave or say how long it could last. Likewise, they won’t acknowledge the existence of the investigation — confirmed by sources — that is being led by Sacramento attorney David Tyra, whose services are costing the county $235 an hour.
Messages left for Ferguson were returned Wednesday by County Counsel Bruce Goldstein.
“Investigations are confidential. We wouldn’t comment on whether there is or is not one,” Goldstein said.
However, Goldstein provided The Press Democrat with a copy of the contract the county has with Tyra’s law firm to conduct investigations that involve personnel matters.
The two-year contract stipulates that the cost for investigative services cannot exceed $100,000 annually without prior approval from county supervisors. In addition to his hourly rate, Tyra is entitled to be reimbursed for hotel stays up to $125 a night and receive a per diem of $50 a day.
The paper requested the contract as well as any records related to Neville’s leave through California’s Public Records Act.
The Sonoma County Grand Jury also is investigating the ag commissioner’s office and the circumstances that led Neville to fire Amy Cooper, the former director of Animal Care and Control.
Marcia Barton, a field representative for Service Employees International Union 1021, said she spoke with a grand juror who confirmed the inquiry. Barton said the juror told her the investigation may expand to include Ferguson’s handling of the situation.
The county’s civil grand jury, which monitors local government operations, does not confirm or discuss ongoing investigations.
Tyra has not returned calls and e-mails seeking comment. He is a shareholder in a Sacramento law corporation who specializes in representing private and public sector employers in labor and employment law actions.
According to his website, he served as lead counsel for Schwarzenegger in 38 cases filed by public employee unions challenging the former governor’s executive orders furloughing state employees. The California Supreme Court ultimately sided with the governor.
Sources with direct knowledge of the investigation said Tyra began interviewing ag employees on Jan. 19, the day after a county official met with employees to discuss Neville’s leave and address safety concerns some employees had after the county changed all the locks on the building and took other security measures.
Neville’s leave was a surprise, coming roughly 24 hours after Goldstein reported that county supervisors took no action during a closed session discussion on the ag commissioner’s job performance. Neville was present for that meeting.
The following day, Supervisor Efren Carrillo, who is chairman of the board, ordered the commissioner out on leave in consultation with three other county officials.
Carrillo last week declined to discuss Neville’s leave, which he referred to as a personnel matter. He did not return subsequent calls this week seeking comment.
However, Supervisor Valerie Brown said “we are going to try and resolve the issue as soon as we can.”
Neville, 53, has faced intense scrutiny since her controversial decision in July to fire Cooper two days before Cooper’s yearlong probationary status was to expire.
The firing caused an uproar among animal control employees and sparked a county investigation that ultimately led the Board of Supervisors in September to transfer the agency to the Health Services Department.
How long Neville will be out or if she will return at all is not publicly known. She earns $153,413 in base salary, which includes a car allowance, and receives an additional $80,101.58 annually in county-paid benefits, according to county records.
Neville had been with the San Diego County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office for 22 years when Sonoma County supervisors appointed her to a four-year term in 2008.
She does not have an employment contract. The county’s hiring resolution states that Neville can be removed from office under California Food and Agriculture codes that pertain to ag commissioners.
Commissioners are licensed by the state, and according to law, can be stripped of the license and removed from office for “neglect of duty, incompetence or misconduct in office” after a hearing.
Such an attempt would appear to be unprecedented, as the only hearing related to an ag commissioner’s job occurred in 1986 to settle a dispute over who was the rightful person to occupy that role in Santa Barbara County.
The state currently is not conducting any investigations that involve Neville, according to Steve Lyle, director of public affairs for the state Food and Agriculture department. He said 109 people currently hold a commissioner’s license in the state.
Another court hearing is set for Thursday in Sonoma County Superior Court related to Neville’s arrest Sept. 10 on suspicion of DUI. She was driving her 2006 Nissan Sentra on Highway 116 near Graton at about 9 p.m. when she was pulled over by a CHP officer who said that he noticed her swerving.
Officers said Neville resisted arrest but the district attorney chose not to charge her with that offense.
Her blood-alcohol level was 0.11 percent, above the 0.08 level at which drivers are legally presumed to be under the influence.