By DEREK MOORE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The California Department of Food and Agriculture is considering whether to weigh in on the firing of Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Cathy Neville, the first time state officials have publicly acknowledged interest in the case.
But what that interest entails or what triggered it remains unanswered.
Greg Dion, a deputy Sonoma County attorney, said Monday that the state agency requested the 11-page letter that Supervisor Efren Carrillo gave to Neville on March 1 notifying her that supervisors intended to fire her for cause.
Steve Lyle, a spokesman for Food and Agriculture, confirmed Monday that state officials are reviewing documents but he declined to elaborate.
The timing of the state’s interest raises questions because the central point of contention in a lawsuit Neville filed against the county is whether the state has the exclusive authority to remove a commissioner from office, or whether county officials have that power as well.
Neville contends 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 reference the early dismissal of agricultural commissioners, who are appointed to four-year terms. As a result, the case is being closely watched statewide.
“We are concerned that the appropriate processes are followed,” said Mary Pfeiffer, president of the California Agricultural Commissioners and Sealers Association.
The association’s stance is that only the state can remove commissioners from office. “If the county wants to fire her (Neville), there is a process essentially to go get her license,” Pfeiffer said.
She said the laws were written that way to protect commissioners from political reprisal at the local level. She gave the example of a commissioner trying to implement a state-mandated pest eradication program over the protest of local factions.
But county attorneys contend that supervisors have the constitutional authority to remove an agricultural commissioner for cause.
Neville was fired for allegedly creating a toxic work environment for employees, lying in a county-led investigation and failing to show leadership on high-profile agricultural initiatives.
County attorneys argued in legal briefs submitted Friday that the Legislature’s wording in the law that references when agricultural commissioners can be removed from office clearly demonstrates their intent to allow counties “the ability to sever the employment relationship.”
The state has jurisdiction only over licensing and a commissioner’s qualifications, the county asserts.
The Department of Food and Agriculture’s interest in the case could signal that state officials have concerns with the county’s stance. Or, they may be researching whether to convene a hearing into the status of Neville’s license, which if revoked, would prevent her from seeking employment as a commissioner anywhere in California.
Neville maintains in her lawsuit that the county’s process to fire her was “arbitrary and capricious and contrary to state law.” She refused to appeal Carrillo’s termination order and instead filed her lawsuit, in which she seeks to get her old job back plus back pay, benefits and attorney’s fees.
Stephen Murphy, Neville’s San Francisco-based employment law attorney, said she will respond to the county’s legal arguments in court documents he plans to submit on Friday.
Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Patrick Broderick has scheduled a May 17 hearing on the case.