On March 5 shock waves rattled through the Los Angeles humane community and far beyond City Hall as the word spread that Kathleen Riordan, daughter of former Mayor Richard Riordan and popular 14-year veteran Animal Services Commissioner, was being “replaced” by Maggie Ragland Neilson, an unknown in animal and local political circles.
Before her chair cooled and her coerced letter of “non-resignation” received its 8:36 a.m. stamp by the City Clerk on March 5, word was out that Ms. Riordan’s replacement was selected and waiting in the wings.
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Gracious and humble in appearance, Riordan is known for her diligence in dissecting complicated issues and asking tough questions about items concerning the care of animals and management of the City’s six shelters and adoption partner programs. She often politely disregarded pressure from mayoral aide Jim Bickhart as he attempted to influence the Commission’s vote, causing him to resort to grimacing and childishly mouthing his disgust from the back row of public meetings.
Kathy Riordan—whose father served two terms as L.A. Mayor and recently chastised Villaraigosa for poor decisions in handling L. A.’s budget and pension system--also has an in-depth understanding of City rules and policies on finance and contract issues. But she presented her concerns in unabrasive inquiries, rather than the grandstanding rhetoric customary in City Hall.
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At one meeting, Riordan’s insistence that the City’s mandatory fair competitive-bidding practices were not being followed caused GM Barnette to bang her head down on the Commission table and later stomp out of the meeting when the Commission agreed with Riordan and voted against a vendor being unabashedly pushed by the “B-team” (Barnette and Bickhart.)
Another shocking aspect of her sudden ouster from the Commission is that Kathy Riordan was just elected last year as Vice President by other members of the Board and had been reappointed to a new five-year term by the Mayor on August 17, 2011.
BREAKING THE NEWS
According to an interview with Ms. Riordan by Dana Bartholomew of the Los Angeles Daily News in a March 5 article ("Riordan Cast Off Animal Commission,") mayoral aide Jim Bickhart informed her by telephone late on the evening of February 28 that she was being replaced by someone with “more to contribute.”
Her replacement, Maggie Ragland Neilson, admitted at the City Council’s Personnel & Animal Welfare Committee that she has no real animal experience except being a dog owner. Her knowledge of animal welfare issues and surrounding politics seems to be mainly what she read after accepting the invitation/nomination for the Commission, according to her statement. She also did not indicate any city government experience.
But, there’s no denying that now-Commissioner Nielson—who was rushed through the usually lengthy process of appointment-- has talents that Mayor V. and L.A. Animal Services GM Brenda Barnette admire. She is the head of Global Philanthropy Group, and according to her resume, that means she helps wealthy people decide where to donate their money.
IS EVA LANGORIA INTERESTED IN ANTONIO’S POLITICS?
One other thing might explain her selection for the dubious honor of a political appointment by Villaraigosa. High on the list of Global Philanthropy’s clients is someone with whom the Los Angeles star-struck, publicity-hungry Mayor is sharing cozy photo-ops—the lovely Eva Langoria.
In a 12/21/12 post by PerezHilton.com, “Is Eva Langoria Desperately Dating Mayor Villaraigosa?, the speculation is, “…that she [Langoria] and Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa are discussing more than just politics together…BUT Eva is setting the record straight about their relationship, insisting that the two are NOT together, but that she just has a passion for government affairs and nothing else!”
With Villaraigosa rumored to be eyeing a run for California Governor; it certainly can’t hurt to solidify connections while he is still in office.
Maggie Neilson’s myriad interests on the Group’s website include “the status of Latinas in the U.S., education reform, global poverty alleviation, the use of technology and its social impact, women’s mental health, and kids with serious illnesses or disabilities…” But there is no mention of animals.
Makes you wonder why someone with her busy schedule would spend valuable hours at Commission meetings rarely attended by more than one member of the public and risk her name and reputation on the Board of a city department with more than its share of negative management headlines for the past few years--increasingly embarrassing under Brenda Barnette’s tenure since 2010.
Still, with only 2-1/2 months until Villaraigosa’s term will (mercifully) end, the insensitive and ugly ouster of a beloved local political figure and respected member of the Los Angeles humane community by mayoral aide Jim Bickhart did not create a welcoming environment for Maggie Neilson, who testified at the PAW Committee that she was unaware of the details of Ms. Riordan’s departure.
HOW THE AX WAS DROPPED
Ms. Riordan states that when she asked Bickhart why she was being removed when the term of another Commissioner with a similar tenure is up in three months and all Commissioners would likely be replaced at the end of the Mayor's term, Bickhart responded to her by e-mail, “If you want to raise a stink or question the Mayor’s logic or authority to make the change, I can only report that to my supervisors and they will just accept your boiler-plate letter and be done with it.”
The “boiler-plate” letter is the undated, pre-signed letter required of all Animal Commission appointees and kept on file in case they don't vote the wishes of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. It undermines the original purpose of having a citizen oversight panel to expose questionable practices and proposals (under threat of the dreaded “letter” being used as it was for Kathy Riordan.)
The L.A. Animal Services Commission now exists merely to provide to an unknowing public--and an often uncaring Council--the appearance that controversial City issues have been “impartially reviewed” and received an “unbiased” seal of approval.
RIORDAN’S DISMISSAL CALLED “IRRATIONAL AND SUSPICIOUS”
Riordan was removed right after the Commission meeting where Barnette became visibly uncomfortable with her questioning how the falling balances of the donated LAAS charitable Animal Welfare Fund and the City-subsidized Spay/Neuter Trust Fund are being spent, since the shelters don't seem to be benefiting and spay/neuters have declined. It was sent back to Ms. Barnette by the Commission for further clarification. Ironically, at the subsequent meeting—after Ms. Riordan was gone—the report was still so convoluted that Commissioner Jim Jensvold asked that Barnette try again to just create a legible record of expenditures and balances in accounts.
Earlier Riordan opposed Barnette and Bickhart’s effort to receive Commission approval to release what appeared to be a “tailored bid” which would have resulted in turning over all confidential LAAS licensing, adoption and investigation records to an out-of-country "cloud" database system run by an affiliate of Best Friends Animal Society. This would have removed the current secure City-server protection for pet owners and adopters' and potentially allowed their personal information to be sold on email lists.
Another issue that perturbed Barnette—a former breeder and AKC representative--and, surprisingly, appeared to infuriate mayoral aide Bickhart, was Commissioner Riordan’s effort to establish focused spay/neuter of high-impound breeds that overwhelm the city’s shelter, namely, Pit Bulls and Chihuahuas, during a recent discussion of L.A.'s spay/neuter ordinance amendments.
In a March 8 letter to the Los Angeles Daily News, Susan Taylor, Executive Director for Actors and Others for Animals, wrote:
“I cannot help thinking Kathy Riordan was fired from the Animal Services Commission because she is an autonomous thinker who has the guts to question the status quo. Her dismissal now is irrational and suspicious…The current leadership must want to do something without anyone questioning it. I implore the Daily News and the public to keep a close watch.”
NIGHT CARE AT LOS ANGELES CITY SHELTERS
Ms. Taylor’s words were heeded by the Daily News. On March 15, only ten days after Kathy Riordan was formally off the Commission, Dana Bartholomew broke the news, “L.A. to end night care at shelters.”
Ms. Barnette had plans that she did not intend to share until they were implemented--to stop care for Los Angeles shelter animals at night by removing all Animal Care Technicians from the graveyard shift, leaving—according to her stats—2,029 cages and kennels of (sometimes multiple) animals without monitoring, cleaning or care, no one to take in animals brought by the public, and no one to address the emergencies that erupt with a large animal population during the night. The safety of the facilities is also at risk. Barnette announced she would be contracting with a private guard service for outside security for the shelters from midnight to 6 a.m. at an additional cost of $256,000/year.
She advised the PAW Committee on March 19, only when questioned by her staunch supporter Councilman Paul Koretz, that she had not discussed this with the Commission or the Union, but had run it by the Personnel Department, CAO and the Mayor’s office. Thus, Jim Bickhart was fully aware in advance but made no effort to advise Barnette to take the issue to the Council, whose constituents (human and animal) it will affect.
Barnette told the Commission at its March 28 meeting, "The graveyard shift redeployment--not only do I not have to ask you or City Council to make that kind of management decision, I am required by City Code to operate professionally and effectively and efficiently."
Does that imply that the Commission and City Council’s opinion is of no value or might actually be an impediment to Ms. Barnette? She overlooks the fact that she does report to Council and she also fails to understand the necessity under the basic tenets of labor law to “meet and confer” with the unions over this cost-creating change in working conditions.
Barnette has a total lack of experience managing a municipal animal shelter. She came to L.A. from the small Seattle Humane Society that took in only about 6,000, mostly hand-selected, animals a year.
Her lack of expertise in this field has clearly been demonstrated by repeated bad judgment in attempting to denigrate the animal-control staff in the media and showing a total disregard for their morale and little respect for the valuable and dangerous work they perform daily.
Oddly, Barnette found some very unexpected support for eliminating care of sheltered animals for six hours a night from a few in the "humane community." None among them seem to have any background in municipal animal sheltering but purport to be leaders in animal welfare.
One of these was Best Friend’s Animal Society, which posted a rather self-serving announcement encouraging calls to the members of the PAW Committee on the day Barnette was to explain her plan for abandoning animal care at night.
It stated, in part, that “L.A. Animal Services is a critical partner to Best Friends and our NKLA initiative…She has led the department out of years of malaise despite city-imposed budget reductions and staff hiring freezes. We believe it is time to let key city council members hear our voice of support for Brenda Barnette and her commitment to a no-kill Los Angeles.”
By its timing and listing only the members of the PAW Committee, is this an endorsement of reducing the care of Los Angeles City shelter animals by an organization that takes in over $50 million a year in donations and is provided a free $19-million facility in Los Angeles at taxpayer expense?
DELAY IN THE ELIMINATION OF THE GRAVEYARD SHIFT
The undated announcement of a “delay” was posted by Brenda Barnette as “her” decision, in anticipation of an evening Town Hall meeting at the East Valley Shelter on April 8, but that is not quite accurate!
At a special meeting of the PAWS Committee on April 2, it was disclosed that the surrounding area shelters Ms. Barnette listed as justifying her decision to have no night animal-care staff, do, in fact, ALL have some type of 24-hour staffing at their facilities.
Councilman Richard Alarcon—in whose district the new $19 million Northeast Valley shelter was given to Best Friends’ Animal Society free of charge and with utilities paid by the City--advised Ms. Barnette that leaving City shelters unattended is not an acceptable option and that it sounds as if the City is getting close to breaking humane laws. He emphasized that the goal of “No Kill” cannot embrace or excuse inhumane treatment of animals in the City’s care.
It was on the basis of Alarcon’s recommendation, concurred in by Councilman Koretz, that a motion was brought to City Council on April 3, urging that the City find a way to fund 16 additional Animal Care Technicians for the Department of Animal Services.
In fact, that should have been Barnette’s suggestion and request as a City manager paid $203,000 a year—with a $20,000 increase in just three years.
We can be assured that, although eliminating night services at City shelters may have been clandestinely planned by Ms. Barnette and approved by the Mayor, it would not have been thrust unannounced on City officials and the public if Kathy Riordan had remained on the Commission. If this is an example of the first week after her classless removal, what is in store for the City and the animals during the remainder of the Mayor’s term?
A letter written to the Daily News by Erin Ziliak of Sylmar summed up the feelings of many who appreciated and will miss Ms. Riordan’s courageous efforts:
“I want to know the real reason Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa terminated her position. Was it because she stood up to shelter management and Deputy Mayor Jim Bickhart? Probably. They said they fired her because they need new blood and someone with more to offer. Too bad the same concept doesn't apply elsewhere, because Villaraigosa and Bickhart would have been out of their jobs years ago.”
On March 20, Kathy Riordan joined shelter employees, caring members of the public and humane groups, and officials of the SEIU union, in front of the East Valley Shelter for a Candlelight Vigil for the animals who soon would not have anyone there for them at night. She spoke of her dismay that this was being allowed and her support of the staff that is grieving over the tragedies that will await them each morning.
Here’s Kathy’s own gracious “non-resignation” letter, which she placed on file before being fired by Jim Bickhart. She wanted it seen by the public and the LAAS employees—knowing that it would undoubtedly be ignored and probably discarded by Jim Bickhart and the Mayor:
March 4, 2013
Office of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa
City of Los Angeles
200 H Spring Street
Los Angeles CA 90012
Dear Mayor Villaraigosa,
It has been my honor and pleasure to serve on the Los Angeles Animal Services Board of Commissioners since 1999. Only two Animal Services Commissioners have had similar tenure on the current board,
I thank you for the opportunity to volunteer in this capacity during both of your terms in office. While I have not always been in agreement with the position of your staff representative, I sincerely appreciate the opportunity to present and explore alternatives and options to the various issues and items at hand.
My objectives, as are yours, have been that this Board reaches the best solutions to the very serious problems facing both the animal and human communities in our city.
I wish to express my gratitude to those in the community who work tirelessly to help animals. I also wish to express my deep respect and appreciation for the staff of LA. Animal Services who serve in our shelters, as well as in the often dangerous and tragic field situations for animals and people Through all of the emotional and financial hardship they have faced, their dedication and courage is an inspiration to me.
Kathleen A Riordan