Power to the Dogs

The Department of Animal Services has a full-time general manager, a board of five volunteer commissioners, and a rocky relationship with members of the public who complain that management wastes tax money and responds poorly to citizens who offer help or require assistance.

The department, in short, differs little from other city departments, except in the level of passion that its critics feel because of the depth of their affection for animals and the number of pets, strays and wildlife that die in the city’s shelters.

Through Richard Riordan’s administration, into James Hahn’s and now Antonio Villaraigosa’s, members of the public come to commission meetings to testify and, they hope, sway department officials. They then often witness commissioners tangling with department management. Usually it’s subtle, but every now and then it breaks into verbal warfare, as it did during one November commission meeting.

So just who’s in charge here? Does public testimony count? Does the commission have any power, or is it just there for show?

The answer is rooted in the city’s law and history, and is less clear than you might expect.

For more than two decades, General Manager Robert Rush had sweeping control over what was then called the Department of Animal Regulation. Critics claimed the department was caught in a time warp, treating pets as vermin under a 1950s-era “dogcatcher” approach. Humane advocates sparred with Rush, who had been appointed by then-Mayor Sam Yorty in 1972 and went on to serve for 22 years under the protection of a civil service system that made it virtually impossible to fire him and, consequently, virtually impossible for the mayor or the City Council to tell him what to do.

After Rush left, Jim Bickhart — then an aide to Councilwoman Ruth Galanter — helped draft a 1993 charter amendment that transferred control over the department from the general manager to the unpaid commission that formerly had power only to “advise” managers. Voters approved the change overwhelmingly.

It was a big deal. The general manager still was practically immune from being fired, but for the first time, someone — the commission — could tell him what to do.

By this time, Richard Riordan was mayor, and in 1995 he got voters to approve another charter change: eliminating the 60-year-old civil-service protection for general managers. Now the mayor could fire a G.M. — but only with the consent of the City Council.

The other shoe dropped in 1999, when two reform commissions proposed throwing out the 75-year-old charter entirely. Under the new system, the mayor was to be put clearly in charge of the city. Department managers, once kings and queens of their own domains, would serve at the mayor’s pleasure as his cabinet. Council approval was still needed to hire a G.M., but not to fire one. The same was now true of unpaid commissioners, who used to serve in unassailable five-year terms but now could be ousted at will by the mayor.

Voters adopted the changes just before James Hahn was elected mayor.

Hahn put his new powers to use for the first time in the Animal Services Department, firing general manager Dan Knapp. Activists complained that Knapp’s successors, Jerry Greenwalt and, later, Guerdon Stuckey, ignored not just them, but the commissioners. That can’t happen, some said, in the wake of the 1993 charter amendment that clearly put the commission in charge.

What most didn’t notice was that the amendment was swept away by the 1999-2000 charter reform. The new charter named only a few departments as commission-run. The rest were to be run by the general managers.

“I remember that being a very conscious and deliberate decision,” said elected Charter Reform Commission President Erwin Chemerinsky, “as part of the way of creating accountability.”

There was to be no question who was in charge. The mayor hires and fires the general manager, who reports directly to him. The commission was once again advisory. Or was it?

After charter reform passed, the City Council restored the Animal Services Commission’s management power in the form of an ordinance.

“The Los Angeles Administrative Code clearly states that the commission is a managing commission,” said Assistant City Attorney Dov Lesel.

“I can see how a general manager could prefer to believe the commission does not have as much power as it may have,” said Animal Services Commissioner Debbie Knaan, “and I can see how the public is frustrated in thinking the commission has the power to do things, and if we don’t, we’re a bunch of gutless wonders.”

In the end, the only thing that’s clear for general managers and commissioners is that the mayor is in charge, and can fire any of them at will.

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