Mayor Jim Hahn really put his foot in it last week. It might not be the biggest hornets’ nest at City Hall, but it certainly is the angriest: the one around which all the animal activists buzz.

And sting.

We are talking about the city Department of Animal Services, which has the largest and most devoted and outspoken following of any city agency. A great many people care more about dogs and cats than they do about potholes, streetlights, even taxes. Animal activists are the most stormy of city clienteles. This may be why the commission long met in a cork-lined room, to confine the chaos (which once included one board member tossing a beverage bottle at another) as much as possible. It‘s also one reason there has been so much turnover in the department’s top position.

But after many decades, the city managed three years ago to find someone to run its animal kingdom who not only could handle the managerial responsibilities, but also brought members of the animal-care community into collaboration with the city as volunteers with the department. Dan Knapp — former head of the Sonoma County Humane Society — promoted adoptions and spayings to avoid euthanasia and saved the lives of thousands of stray and foundling cats and dogs. When the officials of Los Angeles County went looking for a new animal-control chief last year, I heard that they were looking for someone like Knapp, who was not then available.

He is now, though. Mayor Hahn just fired him. Like, bang. No warning, no severance. A peculiar act indeed: The mayor was expected to change some general managers, but no one thought he‘d begin the process by hastily firing possibly the most popular G.M. in the city — even before Hahn appointed most of his advisory commission on animal control. The result is that, in the animal community, the e-mails and phone calls have run fast and furious.

Mike Bell of Citizens for a Humane Los Angeles told me, “I’m very angry. Dan has created some truly innovative concepts in his department over the past three years. And he kept a direct line open to respond to the community‘s complaints and concerns.” The firing, he and other activists agree, was impossible to understand.

They say that, since Knapp took over, the city has cracked down with higher license fees of $100 for unfixed animals — a measure that was fought by many animal breeders, but widely applauded by animal-rights activists. Animal-abuse complaints have dropped. Voters approved Bond Measure F by a reported 75 percent margin. The popular initiative helped upgrade extant city shelters, increase staff and build five more facilities.

Hahn did not return phone calls seeking comment. According to the Daily News, the official explanation was: “It was time to change the guard at the city pound.’‘

”This is a critical department in the city,“ Hahn spokesman Matt Middlebrook said. ”The mayor felt he wanted to go in a different direction.“

This is the last thing animal activists want. According to their e-mails, even Knapp’s critics seem to approve of his direction toward a more humane agency, but claim that he moved too slowly, did not delegate and often acted arbitrarily.

Knapp had been having health problems. But the letter from Hahn, delivered to his home last Tuesday, reportedly gave no reason for firing Knapp from his $128,000 job. This troubled some officials. One council member, not speaking for attribution, said, ”You should at least have a conversation with the recipient, you should [first] get a response from the community. This is totally gratuitous.‘’ One attorney familiar with City Hall said, “Even if Knapp were in serious trouble, the past procedure would have been to tell him so and then arrange a [contract] buyout.”

Knapp refused to comment. But in an e-mail sent to his supporters over the weekend, Knapp advised moderation: “[P]lease continue to work together for the animals and help the interim GM [Jerry Greenwalt, Knapp‘s former assistant]. He really is one of the finest and kindest men you could encounter and he has a very difficult job.”

As it happens, Knapp was planning to return to work full-time next month. He’d been convalescing and working at home for much of the time since a notable April confrontation with then-Councilwoman Rita Walters. Walters attacked Knapp, alleging that he failed to control packs of wild dogs in her district, particularly during the Democratic National Convention. A short time later, Knapp had seizures that required hospitalization.

Some City Hall savants wonder whether Knapp had somehow aggrieved Hahn or whether his ouster foreshadowed the way Hahn plans to dispose of other managers he doesn‘t like.

Knapp’s firing could have political significance beyond the animal-welfare community that strongly supports him. This is the first firing of any city general manager to be done under the city‘s new charter, which last year granted the mayor considerably more authority in such matters. Knapp could still appeal to the City Council, which can — in theory — reinstate him by a two-thirds vote. But would the council really want to confront Hahn right now, while most members are still in their honeymoon phase? Knapp may be popular; but that popular, perhaps he’s not.

Simply allowing the firing to stand could prove costly to both the council and the city in the long run. Back when Dick Riordan sought more firing power over city managers, the counterargument ran that if senior executives could be tossed aside at will, the city might have trouble attracting and retaining top talent. Riordan and his allies‘ response was that Los Angeles mayors would certainly never misuse this power. But how would you like to be Dan Knapp’s “permanent” replacement?

Judge Not?

Only six years ago, Raquelle de la Rocha was a part-time instructor at UCLA Law School who‘d served as a member of the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission. Then the mayor of Los Angeles apparently determined that she could be counted on to do what she was told. She was appointed president of the City Ethics Commission, where her first job was to fire hard-charging Executive Director Ben Bycel.

After controversial terms as president of the Ethics Commission and then the Police Commission, de la Rocha retired last summer along with the Riordan administration. She repaired to Sacramento to fill another commission seat, with Gray Davis‘ administration. It seemed reasonable to assume that the state capital, where she had begun her public career, was probably where her future lay.

Now, however, several sources confirm that she’s being considered for an appointment to a Los Angeles County Superior Court judgeship. For once, I have to say, words fail me.

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