By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The top position in the embattled Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner’s office will be turned over temporarily to a Napa County official while supervisors search for a permanent hire.
The move comes six weeks after supervisors fired Cathy Neville, the former ag commissioner, whose leadership of the office sparked controversy and prompted several county investigations.
The Board of Supervisors approved a deal Tuesday that brings on Napa County Agricultural Commissioner Dave Whitmer part-time through at least the end of October.
Sonoma County will reimburse Napa County up to $40,000 for Whitmer’s time, estimated at up to 16 hours a week. The contract figure is based on Whitmer’s current pay and benefits rate of more than $100 per hour, plus expenses.
The deal is good for six months, but it can be extended for an additional period and up to $25,000 without a vote by supervisors.
County Administrator Veronica Ferguson stressed that the move was not a repudiation of the current interim management team, which consists of three managers who served under Neville.
Ferguson said she and the Board of Supervisors “strongly support” that trio, which includes former county ag commissioner Lisa Correia — who served four years in the post before Neville took over in 2008 — Fernando Vasquez, who oversees the weights and measures division , and Natalie Brunamonte, who oversees administrative functions.
Whitmer’s experience would ensure that critical efforts such as pest quarantines and interaction with farmers and ranchers are not impacted in the interim, Ferguson said.
“We need a highly visible person who can effectively represent the department,” she said in an interview after the board’s decision Tuesday.
Neville’s lawsuit challenging her firing could delay the county’s hiring process, Ferguson said.
Supervisors dismissed Neville on March 22, eight months after her controversial decision to fire Amy Cooper, head of the Animal Care and Control division.
That move was reversed last month when Cooper was rehired to lead the division, which is now overseen by the county’s Department of Public Health.
Neville’s lawsuit seeks reinstatement, back pay and benefits for every day she is out of work and attorney’s fees.
Sonoma County Judge Patrick Broderick has set a new court date, May 17, for a hearing in the case.