By DEREK MOORE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sonoma County has rehired Amy Cooper to lead the Animal Care and Control Division, nine months after Cooper’s controversial firing sparked investigations, a department reorganization and the dismissal of the county agricultural commissioner.
“I’m pleased to have been selected for the second time,” Cooper, 49, said Friday.
Cooper’s return, while rumored for weeks, nevertheless is a surprising turn of events in what has been a monthslong saga that began when former Ag Commissioner Cathy Neville fired Cooper on July 12, two days before Cooper’s 12-month probationary status was to expire.
County supervisors initially threw their support behind Neville, saying they did not want to micromanage a department head or second-guess decisions that she made.
But that was before a barrage of protest from animal control employees, other animal welfare officials and the public led supervisors and County Administrator Veronica Ferguson to rethink that stance.
Ferguson did not return messages seeking comment Friday.
Cooper’s firing sparked a county investigation that ultimately led the Board of Supervisors in September to authorize the transfer of Animal Care and Control from the Ag Commissioner’s Office to the Health Services Department.
Animal Care has 28 full-time employees, including 10 animal control officers, and a budget of $3.8 million. The agency operates the county’s largest animal shelter, taking in nearly 6,000 animals annually.
Cooper said Rita Scardaci, director of Health Services, contacted her more than a week ago to offer her the position. Cooper said she took a couple of days to think it over before she accepted.
Scardaci did not return messages seeking comment Friday.
Bob Garcia, interim manager of Animal Care and Control, said employees clapped when Scardaci informed them Friday morning that Cooper was coming back.
“We are very, very happy of course with the decision. My prayers were answered,” he said.
Supervisor Efren Carrillo, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, said he and other supervisors were notified Friday that Cooper was Scardaci’s choice.
He said he believes the county “has selected the best person for the position,” in Cooper, who was among 65 new applicants for the job.
Asked whether it was necessary in that case for the county to go through months of wrangling just to rehire Cooper, Carrillo referenced civil service rules that he said require a competitive selection process.
Carrillo said the board still has no interest in micromanaging department heads despite what would appear to be a repudiation of Neville’s decision to fire Cooper.
In this case, “the board felt the (animal care) division could have the potential to be better managed” by moving the agency to health services, Carrillo said.
Cooper called it a “good question” when asked why she would want to return given the upheaval of the past nine months. She said she wants to continue doing what she considered good work with a “phenomenal” staff. She said the community support she received in the aftermath of her firing also made a difference.
“There wasn’t a week that went by that I didn’t receive an email or a call from someone saying that we (animal care) were doing good work and that they were hoping for my return. That matters,” she said.
Cooper said she believes she can be an effective leader and make tough decisions — including making staffing cuts if that is what is necessary for budget reasons — despite owing her return in significant part to the employees who rallied to her defense.
Nearly every animal care employee submitted letters to supervisors in which they demanded Cooper’s reinstatement. Service Employees International Union, Local 1021, which represents the rank-and-file, also took out an ad in The Press Democrat urging Cooper’s return.
Cooper said she also doesn’t foresee tension with county supervisors. She will be paid $102,000 annually, plus $51,000 in county-paid benefits. The salary is the same as in her earlier tenure.
She said she again be an at-will employee for her first year back, which means she can again be dismissed for any reason without explanation. She has no right to appeal the decision.
“Would it have been preferable to have that shortened or taken off the table? Of course,” Cooper said. “But I need to respect the civil service rules.”
Cooper starts Tuesday.
Neville, in the meantime, is suing the county to get her job back.
Carrillo, acting with the authority of the board, fired Neville on March 22 for reasons neither he nor Neville will divulge. Her attorney alleges it was political retaliation for Neville firing Cooper.
Neville did not return a call Friday seeking comment.