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Sonoma County’s former Animal Services Director Brigid Wasson and many of the region’s animal advocates are struggling to understand why she was abruptly fired last week, the latest leadership shakeup at an agency riven by turmoil in recent years.

Wasson, a former manager at Santa Clara County’s animal shelter, said her firing Aug. 25, a month shy of the end of her yearlong probationary period, caught her by surprise.

“Since no one has given me any reasons about why I was fired, I have no way of knowing what went wrong,” Wasson said Tuesday. “I’m still in shock. I planned to retire here.”

Health Services Director Rita Scardaci and Public Health Director Ellen Bauer, who oversee the Animal Services Department, have declined to provide details about the firing, citing a desire to protect Wasson’s privacy. On Friday, Bauer said she could not offer insight on the firing because of confidentiality rules that pertain to county personnel matters.

Scardaci sought to explain the broad latitude that county managers have in dismissing employees who haven’t cleared their probationary period.

“Sometimes it just isn’t a good match,” Scardaci said, speaking broadly about the termination of probationary county employees. “We don’t call it being fired; that’s just not how we think of it.”

Though Wasson has few avenues to challenge her dismissal, being given no reason for her termination prevents her from presenting any kind of rebuttal.

The county’s civil service rules, which governed Wasson’s position, say “a probationary employee may be dismissed at any time during the probationary period without right of appeal or hearing.”

The county’s Animal Services division has been wracked by years of high leadership turnover and mismanagement. A 2006 county audit, followed by a grand jury report two years later, uncovered allegations of animal abuse, inadequate staffing and other problems with operations at the county shelter north of Santa Rosa.

In July 2010, Amy Cooper, then the agency’s director, was fired two days before her probationary period ended by county Agricultural Commissioner Cathy Neville, who oversaw the animal care division at the time. That sparked another wave of changes, including the transfer of Animal Services to the health department, followed by the firing of Neville and the re-hiring of Cooper nine months after her dismissal.

Cooper, who returned to the agency’s top post following a groundswell of support from shelter staff and volunteers, ended her tenure last June for personal reasons. She declined to comment on Wasson’s firing, and shelter staff have not returned calls seeking comment. Some animal welfare advocates not employed by the county said, however, that the firings of both Cooper and Wasson came even as shelter managers were making significant changes — from drastically reducing kill rates to developing adoption partnerships with other rescue organizations throughout Sonoma County.

“All of us at the shelter were shocked when Amy was fired with no warning, and here we are, going through it all over again,” said Gail Culverwell, who has been an active volunteer at the county’s shelter for the past five years. “Brigid was approachable and very easy to get along with. I always felt that when I had ideas, someone was listening. I’m left to wonder why — what’s going on?”

Some animal advocates who have endured turbulence at the county shelter for nearly a decade said although they don’t know why Wasson was fired, they are ready to move on.

“I believe that they (the county) want to do the right thing, and if this is what they think is necessary to improve conditions for animals at the county shelter, then we support their actions,” said Kiska Icard, executive director of the Sonoma Humane Society, a nonprofit shelter in Santa Rosa with a staff of 50 people and nearly 600 volunteers. “We need to focus on finding a leader who has demonstrated experience in running a high-performance shelter.”

Wasson’s firing came less than two weeks after high-profile animal welfare advocate Odessa Gunn aired concerns about conditions at the county shelter off Century Court. Gunn said dogs were enduring sweltering temperatures inside the shelter, putting the animals at risk. Wasson and her former bosses dispute the allegations, but Wasson later made changes to address some of the concerns. The two women, however, never spoke or met.

Gunn and her husband, Levi Leipheimer, a former cycling star, are major donors to the Humane Society’s Forget Me Not Farm, which assists troubled youths. Gunn also is a member of the farm’s board of directors.

Bauer said last week the shelter was in a time of “transformation,” citing 15 sweeping changes recommended in 2012 — an overhaul Wasson was hired to help lead. She oversaw a staff of about 30, a volunteer corps of about 50 and a budget of $4.9 million.

“We’ve been doing this work to refocus for two years, and Brigid fit into our movement of change,” Bauer said Friday. “(Wasson’s dismissal) is not something we take lightly.”

Wasson was charged with heading efforts to reduce kill rates for sheltered animals, improving data collection on animal intake, launching a social media presence for the shelter and developing a rescue model that includes the participation of the public and animal welfare nonprofits. Other shelter workers said these are hard-to-reach goals even for well-funded private rescue operations.

“This is a very challenging, very emotional job, even in the best of circumstances,” said Mickey Zeldes, supervisor at the Rohnert Park Animal Shelter, which is run by the city. “When you’re a county or municipal shelter, you don’t have the luxury to turn away animals like private shelters, so trying to reduce euthanasias alone is a daunting task.”

Bauer last week commended Wasson for making progress or meeting many of those agency goals, including the continued drop in animal kill rates. The shelter’s live release rate — which includes animals returned to their owners and adopted out as pets — is now at 85 percent, according to a county document. Nationally, the live release rate is lower, at 65 percent, according to a 2013 peer-reviewed study published last year.

The same efforts will continue with the new director, Bauer and Scardaci said. The county plans to conduct a nationwide search for Wasson’s replacement. A job announcement will go out in November.

Brian Whipple, a supervising animal control officer with the county since November, was appointed interim director last week.

“We want to really listen to the community and look for their feedback and participation in all areas, including hiring,” Scardaci said.

Sheri Cardo, a former spokeswoman for the Marin Humane Society and a longtime animal welfare advocate in Sonoma County, said she was disappointed when she learned of Wasson’s departure, but added she noticed renewed efforts last week to improve the shelter and engage animal welfare advocates.

“They have done a really good job of listening to everyone who wants to talk to them and integrating that into the future of the shelter,” Cardo said.

Gunn leveled allegations of unsafe conditions at the shelter after her July 26 visit. She said she’s been concerned for a “long time” that animals at the shelter undergo physical stress, in part because the building is old, but she said her concerns have been addressed.

“I’ve met with Rita (Scardaci), and she seems motivated to help make conditions better at the shelter,” Gunn said.

Since the original complaint, Wasson and her former bosses said they ordered changes to improve conditions inside the building, constructed in 1960.

At Wasson’s direction, crews installed five temperature monitors and fixed broken overhead fans that circulate air over the kennels.

Officials and volunteers cited the age of the building, with some saying there is little else they can do.

“The animal shelter is not perfect, and it is definitely inadequate for the needs of this county,” said Yvonne Keiser, a volunteer at the shelter.

Scardaci said the new monitoring equipment will help the county respond to complaints about temperature at the shelter. Nevertheless, she disputed Gunn’s allegations that temperatures inside reached as high as 102 degrees in July.

“We still don’t believe the temperature in those kennels reached those extremes,” Scardaci said. “But we do want to be able to make sure, so we have an accurate reading and so we make sure we’re focusing on the comfort of the animals.”

Wasson said she has not reached a decision on her future plans, but said she plans to stay in Sonoma County.

“I’ve received hundreds of calls and Facebook messages from people I’ve worked with and people in the community,” Wasson said. “So even though I’m still devastated, at least I know I have support. I have no plans to leave.”

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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