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Brenda Barnette's Animal Services Mishaps

This is an expanded version of the original online article.

Local animal-care organizations want to help the city's troubled Animal Services department. But in a series of unsettling incidents, respected nonprofits were edged out when a locally unproven group nabbed a contract to run a city shelter — without competitive bidding — and a major donor claimed that animal-rights extremist Pamelyn Ferdin was involved behind the scenes in dreaming up the city's new pet-adoption banners.

On Aug. 12, the Los Angeles City Council preliminarily agreed to give Best Friends Animal Society the contract to manage the vacant Northeast Valley shelter in Mission Hills.

Madeline Bernstein, president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Los Angeles, only found out about the opening a few days before the City Council met, yet her respected group has been in L.A. for more than 130 years.

Only Best Friends knew about the opportunity from city officials — and, not surprisingly, it was the only group to apply.

At a follow-up meeting on Aug. 16, the City Council finally had a quorum to finalize its selection of Best Friends Animal Society — a decision supported by city Animal Services general manager Brenda Barnette and opposed only by City Councilman Richard Alarcon.

Teri Austin, president of longtime animal-rescue agency Amanda Foundation, pleaded: "There is no harm in seeing another deal. We are just asking you to look at something else." The Amanda Foundation was established 35 years ago in L.A.

"Where did the deal come from? No legitimate local organizations were informed about it," says SPCA's Bernstein.

In fact, well-known animal organizations never heard about the chance to run the shuttered Mission Hills shelter that was granted to Best Friends until it was too late to apply.

Then, just days later, City Hall was beset with another troubling controversy spawned by yet another nonprofit group embraced by Barnette — the newly founded Bernheim Foundation, underwritten by wealthy Beverly Hills lawyer Steven Bernheim.

Bernheim's neophyte foundation made headlines on Aug. 28 for its badly bungled plan to erect huge, 70-foot-long banners on a second city animal shelter, the East Valley Shelter in Van Nuys.

With Animal Services chief Barnette's blessing, Bernheim hired tree cutters to pare trees at the animal shelter so Angelenos could see the new banners, which exhort people to adopt pets.

The hired crew got out chainsaws and, ignoring the protests of shocked city shelter employees who heard the racket outside, illegally cut down the entire grove of 14 costly, mature, environmentally certified pepper trees that had been painstakingly placed around the Van Nuys shelter for optimum shade.

But at least passers-by could better see the Bernheim Foundation's new banners.

In a front-page Daily News article decrying the trees' destruction, the rich donor, Bernheim, let it slip that radical activist Pamelyn Ferdin had quietly gained a toehold in the city's Animal Services Department, as the person who had hatched the idea of hanging the banners.

Former child actress Ferdin has made news in recent years for trespassing, screaming at a high-ranking Animal Services employee on his front porch — and working with a violent group that, among other things, planted a car bomb and fire-bombed a home to terrorize UCLA research scientists. Five of her extremist friends, although not Ferdin, were banned by a Los Angeles Superior Court judge from coming within 150 feet of UCLA researchers' homes at night. Ferdin then ignored a court injunction and passed out fliers showing the UCLA researchers' faces, home addresses and phone numbers.

Ferdin is married to animal-rights extremist Jerry Vlasak, a doctor who for years duped the media into believing he was a surgeon at Loma Linda University Medical Center, and who once told a Utah reporter who asked him if murder was justifiable: "Whatever it takes to stop someone from abusing animals is certainly morally acceptable."

By phone, Ferdin, who was out of town, denied to L.A. Weekly that the pet-adoption banner plan was hers.

But when lawyer Bernheim, who paid for the banners and tree cutting, was asked a day later whether he worked with Ferdin, Bernheim gave the nod to both Ferdin's radical activities and his own ties to her, replying: "I don't wish to comment on that because of her affiliation — I am pretty sure she is not in the state, anyway."

The pepper trees have been replaced. City taxpayers and private donors — not Steven Bernheim — footed the bill. And Brenda Barnette has denied that Pamelyn Ferdin has any kind of pull at the city Animal Services Department.

Meanwhile, seasoned animal-care groups are still deeply puzzled by what is unfolding several miles from the Van Nuys shelter, where the City Council handed the other nonprofit group, Best Friends, the contract to reopen the Northeast Valley shelter in Mission Hills.

 

City Council president Eric Garcetti is distancing himself from the actions leading to that contract award, while ardent animal-rights activist and City Councilman Paul Koretz is defending it.

Garcetti, a candidate for mayor, has repeatedly claimed he runs a "transparent" ship as council president — amidst chronic criticism about the secrecy and poor preparation that beset the L.A. City Council. The decision to select Best Friends without competition was placed on the agenda by Garcetti and sponsored by Koretz.

The idea was never aired before longtime animal-rights stakeholders, as would be the norm.

Koretz's personal staffer Jeff Ebenstein, who handles many Animal Services issues, said the plan came from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's personal staff and city chief administrative officer, Miguel Santana, and was endorsed by Animal Services chief Barnette.

Garcetti spokeswoman Julie Wong, trying to explain why established groups were shut out, says it "sounded like" outreach had been sufficient because Santana sent the city's animal-care groups a "Request for Information" report — an official heads-up that the city was seeking interested groups to run the closed-down Northeast Valley Animal Shelter.

But that's not, in fact, what happened.

According to Amanda Foundation president Austin, Santana acknowledges that the city sent its official heads-up — called an RFI — to a 3,000-group distribution list filled with agencies with no connection to animal care. Groups such as the Amanda Foundation and SPCA were not on it.

Paul Neuman, communication director for Koretz, argues that by pulling in just one legitimate applicant, the City Council was practicing good business: "If you receive a solid, proven applicant, even if there is only one applicant," Neuman maintains, "then you have accomplished what you set out to do.

Beth Heisen, attorney and former Animal Services commissioner, thinks differently. She suggests that if more groups had applied, a collaborative contract could have been agreed upon in which three or more animal groups could have run the Northeast Valley shelter as a fully functioning facility.

Under the Best Friends deal, the $19 million shelter will only serve as an adoption center and spay/neuter clinic.

SPCA's Bernstein says ignorance reigned as Garcetti and Koretz pushed the item on the agenda. 

"The council members did not know of any other bids," Bernstein says. "People that could have bid were not aware."

Barnette says she privately reached out to two large groups — the Humane Society and the Heigl Foundation — but neither was interested.

Best Friends has been in L.A. for 20 years on a small scale, holding well-publicized adoption events. It's far better known for its 36,000-acre animal sanctuary in southern Utah, the largest no-kill sanctuary in the country.

Austin of Amanda Foundation says with its intense focus on Utah, Best Friends doesn't “have a great history of bringing money back into the community” in Los Angeles. Best Friends co-founder Francis Bautista said that he splits his time fifty-fifty between L.A. and Utah.

Alarcon, the lone naysayer on the City Council, thinks Barnette wanted Best Friends to manage the shelter in Mission Hills all along. He says that when Santana issued the RFI to the 3,000 groups, Santana's wording did not make clear that the city was very close to seeking bids. Thanks to this "bogus RFI," Alarcon says, no major group with a local track record — not SPCA-LA, Amanda Foundation or Actors and Others for Animals — bid to reopen the city's closed-down shelter.

"Best Friends knew exactly what to apply for," Alarcon says. "Essentially what Best Friends did is they offered $1 million to the city and got a contract."

Local animal organizations were not informed about the opportunity to finance banners for animal services, either. Susan Taylor of the longtime group Actors and Others for Animals says she has the money to help the city advertise, but she was never told of the opportunity.

“It is one thing if you are private organizations, but this is city-run,” says Taylor. “The public is supposed to know.”

Barnette said that her department has no budget for marketing, but could use it. (Banners with Best Friends logos stamped on were also hung at the West L.A. and South L.A. shelters.)

Taylor asks why, if city department head Barnette needed advertising help, she failed to seek it more widely. Taylor knew of three other groups, including Actors and Others for Animals, that would have loved to finance advertisements for the shelters — and get their logos printed on large banners as did Best Friends.

Barnette said she didn't think it was important to throw out a net seeking proposals from competing groups for this project.

But when Barnette put her trust in Beverly Hills attorney Bernheim — the first person to offer to pay for the advertising banners — it resulted in a deciduous disaster at the East Valley shelter.

 

It also caused a problem all the way over in Chinatown. There, the people hired by Bernheim screwed up again, putting two large pet-adoption banners on a private building on the corner of Lacy Street and Avenue 26 to direct people to the North Central shelter half a block down Lacy. But nobody asked the building owner if that was OK, according to a shelter worker. In the middle of the night, somebody ripped down the city's illegal banners.

Taylor believes requesting proposals from more qualified animal organizations would be relatively easy for Barnette. She says she receives holiday cards from Animal Services — and that the department can easily reach all of the local animal organizations through its existing email list.

Whatever the reasons, Barnette seems to be running her own show and is allowing Best Friends to be the headliner.

In September 13, at the city-controlled East Valley shelter, Best Friends held a meeting for Animal Services’ staff and volunteers. Best Friends told the department they would be committing $500,000 for online and outdoor advertising and providing incentives to rescue groups who adopt animals from city shelters.

This Best Friends partnership with City Hall comes in the wake of The Heigl Foundation cutting its donations to Animal Services. For years, the foundation, started by actress Katherine Heigl and her mother Nancy, donated $40 spay/neuter surgeries to animal organizations that rescue dogs from the department's shelters so they are not euthanized.

A widely-circulated August 2011 email from the Heigl Foundation board provided to the Weekly states the reason that group walked away.

The Heigl board slams Animal Services: “Despite our continued and tireless efforts to work cooperatively with the department in providing financial and strategic planning support to various programs, LA Animal Services has been unable to reciprocate the same spirit of partnership and working collaboratively to address the challenges we face in our efforts to better the lives of animals in our cities."

City Councilman Alarcon worries that Barnette might be trying to privatize the department. He says that she has not been adhering to the usual process.

Barnette responds: “Anything that will help kill less animals is a good thing.”

Reach the writer at rdeto@laweekly.com

 

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