By DEREK MOORE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Former Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Cathy Neville was fired for misconduct and incompetence after several employees reported that she acted erratically and disparaged them, and after other county officials said that Neville did not show the necessary leadership on several high-profile agricultural initiatives.
The allegations are contained in hundreds of documents that were made public this week as part of Neville’s lawsuit against the county seeking her old job back.
The documents reveal for the first time why Supervisor Efren Carrillo fired Neville on March 22, as well as why Neville fired former Animal Care and Control Director Amy Cooper last July.
They also offer a rare, behind-the-scenes look at the county’s efforts to contain the public relations crisis that ensued in the wake of Cooper’s ouster.
County Administrator Veronica Ferguson called the experience “unprecedented” in her 30 years in government during an interview in January with an investigator hired by the county. She said she had to assign several people just to handle the volume of emails and phone calls that were coming into her office from animal care activists, most of whom were ardent Cooper supporters.
Ferguson publicly defended Neville’s right to manage her department as she saw fit. But the records reveal that Ferguson privately was unhappy with Neville’s decision.
The relationship between the two managers deteriorated in ensuing months. On Jan. 10, Neville filed a grievance against Ferguson, accusing the county administrator of undermining her at the behest of the Service Employees International Union. Neville also claimed the union was behind efforts to get Cooper reinstated.
That grievance, coupled with a complaint submitted that same day by an agriculture department employee who said the stress of working for Neville had forced her into early retirement, were key turning points. County officials launched their investigation and on Jan. 12 ordered Neville out on leave from a job that paid her an annual salary of $153,413, plus $80,102 in benefits.
Neville is suing to get her job back, plus back pay, benefits and attorney’s fees.
Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Patrick Broderick last Friday granted the county’s request to include the 767-page report compiled by Sacramento attorney David Tyra in the county’s legal briefs opposing Neville’s lawsuit. Broderick has scheduled a hearing on the case for May 17.
The packet includes interviews with more than a dozen ag employees whose names were redacted by county attorneys to protect their privacy.
County attorneys said the documents bolster their contention that county supervisors had legitimate cause and the authority to fire Neville.
But Stephen Murphy, Neville’s attorney, contends that only the state can fire an agriculture commissioner after a trial hearing in Sacramento. He fought disclosure of the documents on the grounds that they are defamatory, based on hearsay and irrelevant to the proceedings.
Neville refused to allow her interview to be recorded by Tyra, who included a summary of the conversation in his final report.
Murphy said Neville “would look forward to rebutting the allegations in that report in the right forum, which is the Secretary of Agriculture and a trial board.”
In a March 1 termination notice signed by Carrillo, the West County supervisor and board chairman accused Neville of “gross misconduct and incompetence.”
Reasons included Neville allegedly referring to two of her chief deputies as “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum,” and to another employee as a “whore.” She also allegedly referred to the partner of a chief deputy as a “fat cow” and “pig.”
Neville denied making those statements in her interview with Tyra.
But Carrillo said the statements were corroborated by “many individuals,” and he essentially accused Neville of lying.
“You fail to comprehend the depth of the problem or the liability your conduct poses the county,” he wrote in the termination letter.
Murphy, however, called it “ironic” that no one ever complained to Neville about the alleged comments.
“If these comments were made, and she had done all of these horrible things, why didn’t it come to her attention? It appears it’s being exaggerated by the county for the county’s own purposes,” he said.
Murphy also questioned the credibility of the county’s main source for those allegations, saying it was an agriculture department employee who was passed over for a promotion and who is in a relationship with Carrillo. He said the woman is also a steward for SEIU.
Carrillo would not address that relationship when asked for comment this week. But he said the decision to fire Neville was one that “the county Board of Supervisors made with the facts before us.”
County attorneys previously said the board had “authorized” Carrillo to act on their behalf.
His termination notice to Neville alleges her communication style with her staff and other county employees also amounted to misconduct.
Carrillo cited as an example Neville calling Ferguson while the county administrator was on vacation to report that she had fired Cooper, despite Ferguson previously asking Neville to explore ways of extending Cooper’s probationary period.
“A heads-up would have been good,” Ferguson said.
Neville’s attorney contends that her firing was retribution for the politically unpopular decision to fire Cooper, who since has been rehired by the county to lead animal control.
In her interview with Tyra, Ferguson acknowledged that animal control likely never would have been taken away from the agriculture commissioner had Cooper not been fired.
“I believe that had the situation with Amy Cooper not occurred, we probably would still have business as usual,” Ferguson said.
Neville defended her decision to fire Cooper in her grievance against Ferguson.
“I followed all protocols, and it was the right decision,” she wrote.
Several documents that were included with the grievance and labeled “confidential” offered more insight into Neville’s reasoning.
She said that there wasn’t a single cause that led to her decision to fire Cooper, but several things that she said amounted to “poor judgment and insubordination” on Cooper’s part.
Neville listed Cooper’s alleged failure to draft a contract for veterinary services, her advocating inappropriately for the county to drop proposed fines against three animal welfare nonprofits, and Cooper taking in 15 dogs from out of the county in February 2010 after Neville previously had ordered her to stop the practice.
Neville claimed that a previous shipment of 25 dogs from Monterey County resulted in some Sonoma County dogs having to be euthanized at the Century Court shelter because of a lack of space.
Cooper declined comment this week.
Carrillo’s termination notice outlined a number of other things he said amounted to misconduct on Neville’s part. They included her alleged failure to provide leadership on important projects such as a frost protection ordinance and her directing a staff member to copy confidential personnel and medical files of animal control employees after supervisors voted in September to transfer that department to Health Services.
Neville told Tyra that she only asked to see the files. But in an Oct. 15 email, Neville thanked an employee who wrote to her to report that they had “made copies of the personnel files that you requested.”
The county contends that Neville’s alleged untruthfulness when questioned about these events would be enough to fire her.
Carrillo also referenced Neville’s DUI arrest on Sept. 11 and subsequent conviction. A copy of the CHP’s report, the court docket and media reports related to the incident were included in the packet the county is submitting in Neville’s civil case.
Carrillo said in the termination letter that Neville’s arrest brought discredit to the county. His letter noted a CHP officer reported having to put Neville in a control hold and take her to the ground when she attempted to walk away during her arrest — an allegation that was never part of the formal charges brought against Neville.
Ferguson initially called Neville’s arrest a “private matter” and said it did not violate county policies because it occurred outside of work. She declined further comment on that stance Wednesday.
Murphy, however, said the county’s decision to include information related to Neville’s DUI was “totally inappropriate.”
“It’s part of the smear campaign against Cathy,” he said.