By DEREK MOORE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Former Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Cathy Neville’s bid to get her job back was dealt a blow Monday when a judge tentatively ruled that county officials had the power to fire her.
Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Patrick Broderick wrote that state laws do not prevent counties from taking action against agricultural commissioners who are deemed unfit for office.
“This interpretation harmonizes the statewide and municipal functions, and does not provide for the absurd consequence of a county having to suffer through the term of an ill-equipped commissioner/sealer,” Broderick wrote.
Broderick is scheduled to hear final arguments on the case Tuesday.
County supervisor Efren Carrillo, acting on behalf of the entire five-member board, fired Neville March 22, claiming she created a toxic work environment for employees, lied in a county-led investigation and failed to show leadership on high-profile agricultural initiatives.
Neville subsequently sued the county, contending that supervisors acted illegally in retribution for her politically unpopular decision to fire Amy Cooper, the county’s former director of Animal Care and Control. Cooper has since been rehired.
Neville’s suit is the first test of state laws that refer to early dismissal of agricultural commissioners, who are licensed by the state but hired by counties to four-year terms. As a result, the case is being closely watched statewide.
Broderick did not address the merits of the county’s reasons for firing Neville in his tentative ruling. Instead, he focused on whether the county had authority to take any action at all.
Broderick noted that state law does not regulate how counties discipline or, if necessary, remove a commissioner from office in matters that don’t pertain to that person’s qualifications or license.
But the judge’s tentative interpretation is that counties can take disciplinary action, separate from the licensing process.
Greg Dion, a deputy county attorney, declined comment Monday. Stephen Murphy, Neville’s attorney, also declined comment.