Sonoma County’s top executive is reviewing the dismissal of the county animal care and control director whose abrupt departure last week sparked a staff revolt and outcry among other animal welfare officials.
County Administrator Veronica Ferguson said she will determine whether “proper procedures” were followed in the process that led to Amy Cooper’s removal as animal care director 48 hours before her yearlong probationary status was to expire.
The review, which on Thursday included a county official meeting with animal control staff for several hours to air concerns, represents a rare example of an administrator publicly questioning the decisions made by a department head, in this case, Agricultural Commissioner Cathy Neville.
The public backlash over Neville’s decision to dismiss Cooper apparently overrode Ferguson’s concerns that she will be perceived as micromanaging a subordinate.
She said people have expressed concerns about Cooper’s departure and the affect it will have on the animal care division, which has suffered from a turnover in leadership.
“What they are all telling us is that the shelter is operating much better than several years ago, and they are fearful the services will suffer. What I have asked them to do is to keep us posted,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson said she asked Neville to provide additional “background information” to substantiate the ag commissioner’s statement that she regularly outlined performance goals for Cooper.
Cooper, 49, claims that she had no idea she was going to lose her job when Neville asked to meet with her a week ago Monday, and that the reasons for Neville’s decision remain a mystery to her.
Cooper earned $101,916 annually and was an at-will employee, which meant she could be dismissed for any reason without explanation. She has no right to appeal the decision.
Ferguson said the county has no rules requiring supervisors to formally communicate performance goals to employees who are on probation. But she said her expectation is that they should.
“The supervisor should be in an on-going dialogue about their (the employee’s) performance,” she said. “But do we have rules that say we have to do that? Probably not.”
She said other than affirming Neville’s decision, her only other option is to bring Cooper back and extend her probationary period to try and work out whatever issues that led to her dismissal.
For now, Ferguson is backing Neville.
“We’re content to support the department head,” she said.
Whether that support remains may depend on the results of her fact-finding mission, which on Thursday included Ferguson dispatching one of her managers, Peter Rumble, to the Century Court animal shelter where employees are upset at Cooper’s departure.
Bob Garcia, the animal care division’s interim leader until a replacement for Cooper is found, said employees met as a group with Rumble for two hours.
Garcia said the staff felt like their concerns were heard. But he said the meeting did not change their opinion that Cooper should be re-hired.
Prior to the meeting, 28 of 32 animal care employees, including the agency’s three highest-ranking managers, submitted letters of protest to county supervisors seeking Cooper’s reinstatement.
“To sum it up, we’re wondering if the decision (to dismiss Cooper) was worth the damage it caused,” said Garcia, who has been with the department for 35 years.
Garcia said Neville met with the staff on Monday. He said the meeting was brief and did not go far in easing their concerns.
“I don’t think she was able to answer very many questions,” Garcia said.
Rumble is planning to meet with animal care employees individually in coming days to gather more information.
Ferguson said she also is exploring the possibility of conducting an exit interview with Cooper to hear her side of the story.
Cooper, who is in Idaho this week on a previously scheduled vacation, could not be reached Thursday for comment.
Ferguson is expected to wrap up her review sometime next week. In the meantime, the county is pressing forward in its search to replace Cooper.