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.