ANIMAL WATCH-Dog owners in the city of Los Angeles receive an annual (or multi-year) notice from LA Animal Services to renew their dog's license and provide proof of rabies vaccination, but does General Manager Brenda Barnette have the legal right to use their information for unofficial, non-City solicitations?
Dog-license renewal notices currently being sent out by LAAS also contain a vibrant yellow advertisement which urges you to purchase tickets for the California Science Center's exhibition, "Dogs! A Science Tail," supported by Annenberg Foundation and PetSmart Charities.
At the bottom of the insert, the LA Animal Services' logo appears, offering $2 off an exhibition ticket for each adult and $1 off for a child, which can also be used at the IMAX with a seven-story screen and a higher admission fee.
RESTRICTIONS ON USE OF DOG-OWNERS' ADDRESSES
None of the following discussion is to be considered an accusation of wrongdoing by Annenberg Foundation or PetSmart Charities, which sponsor the program(s) being offered at the California Science Center. It is not possible to discuss this topic or ask for a review of a City employee's actions in this instance without these two charitable entities being mentioned. The references to either are merely because they are publicly part of/founders of the program(s) being described.
It is important that the City Attorney determine whether it is a violation of law for a government, tax-funded department to include in City notifications or other mail, solicitations to purchase tickets or advertisements for unofficial, non-City events -- regardless of how educational they may be.
Both the Assistant City Attorney and the Council members present at the Personnel and Animal Welfare (PAW) Committee on August 21 claimed they were unaware of this.
DOG LICENSES ARE MANDATORY IN THE CITY OF LOS ANGELES
LA Animal Services is a government agency, which is mandated by State law to assure dogs' rabies vaccinations are valid, because LA has been declared a "rabies area" by the LA County Health Department.
A licensed veterinarian certifies that the owner has vaccinated the animal, and the City is allowed under State law to sell a tag/license to offset the cost of such enforcement. That is the only reason indicated in state law that this Department is allowed to capture and record dog owners' addresses, other than for violations of law.
CA HEALTH & SAFETY CODE ON DOG LICENSING/RABIES CONTROL
CA Health & Safety Code Sec. 121690 (h) states:
All information obtained from a dog owner by compliance with this chapter is confidential to the dog owner and proprietary to the veterinarian. This information shall not be used, distributed, or released for any purpose, except to ensure compliance with existing federal, state, county, or city laws or regulations.
CITY ETHICS CODE
Was permission given to General Manager Barnette by a higher entity in City government? Did the placement of the LA Animal Services logo and use of City envelopes, postage and mailing receive the blessing of the Mayor's Office, City Council and/or the City Attorney?
Report Fraud, Waste, and Abuse | City of Los Angeles states under the City seal that a report should be made on "Intentional misuse of City equipment or property" and "Gross disregard of policy and procedural controls."
CONSPIRACY -- IT TAKES TWO (OR MORE)
Findlaw advises that,
A criminal conspiracy exists when two or more people agree to commit almost any unlawful act, then take some action toward its completion. The action taken need not itself be a crime, but it must indicate that those involved in the conspiracy knew of the plan and intended to break the law. A person may be convicted of conspiracy even if the actual crime was never committed. (CA Penal Code Sec. 182.)
These issues were brought to the attention of Council members Paul Koretz and Curren Price at the Personnel and Animal Welfare (PAW) Committee.
Koretz summoned Assistant City Attorney Dov Lesel, who said he will refer it to the City's Ethics attorney for review.
(Also, a California Public Records Act request has been submitted to determine what correspondence, communication and collaboration took place in developing this advertising insert, and who was involved in the planning and execution of the mailing.)
$100,000 'UNRESTRICTED' DONATION BY ANNENBERG FOUNDATION
Ironically, on the August 21, 2019, LA City Council Personnel and Animal Welfare Committee meeting agenda, Item #15 is:
Department of Animal Services report relative to the acceptance of a donation of $100,000 from the Annenberg Foundation for unrestricted purposes.
General Manager Brenda Barnette appeared at the meeting and assured Council members Koretz and Price that the two matters are not connected.
She testified that in 2018, the Annenberg Foundation had donated $50,000 to the Department and this time it increased the amount to $100,000 (copies of letter and check are included in the Council packet for Council File 19-0895.)
The wording of the letter is not exactly as it appears on the Committee agenda, which is why I was at the meeting to question it.
The wording of the June 21, 2019, transmittal from the Chairman of the Board, President and CEO of the Annenberg Foundation is, "...I am pleased to enclose a check from the Annenberg Foundation for $100,000 as a contribution for the charitable purposes of the City of Los Angeles Department of Animal Services. It is the final payment on the $100,000 unrestricted commitment made by the Annenberg Foundation." [Emph. added.]
There is no indication that this money must be used specifically and directly for the welfare of impounded animals in LA City shelters or programs that specifically benefit them.
Since Brenda Barnette has widely expanded the usage of money in the Animal Welfare Fund, it is important to emphasize that, although this donation indicates it is an "unrestricted commitment made by the Annenberg Foundation," it says it is to be used ONLY for the "charitable purposes of the City of Los Angeles Department of Animal Services." (The department is a tax-funded government shelter, not a charitable institution.)
WHAT ARE THE ‘CHARITABLE PURPOSES’ OF LA ANIMAL SERVICES?
This is not questioning the sincerity or propriety of the donation from Annenberg Foundation. It is a question regarding how this money will be used by LA Animal Services under the direction and supervision of GM Brenda Barnette.
LAAS is a municipal (tax-funded) agency charged with picking up stray, lost, abandoned or injured animals, providing them with veterinary care and humane sheltering, and returning them to owners or making them available for sale (called "adoption") to the public at the end of a legal hold period. A municipal shelter also has an obligation to humane treatment and minimizing or end suffering of animals.
GM Barnette has commented that money from the AWTF might be used to help low-income families with adoption or microchip fees. According to legal opinions, it is questionable whether the Department of Animal Services can legally fund adoptions of its own animals for low-income families and thus take money from its donor account to pay it to itself (and the City) for the benefit of an individual.
Much of the donated money which individuals add to their dog license amount (this is restricted for the animal welfare or sterilization funds) is a sacrifice by hard-working animal lovers who believe they are helping the shelters, not providing for other "charitable purposes." Thus, the purpose and sanctity of these funds needs to be clarified and maintained.
A FEW ANIMAL WELFARE TRUST FUND EXPENDITURES IN 2018 - 2019
In July 2018, General Manager Brenda Barnette used $8,250 from the donated Animal Welfare Trust Fund (AWTF) money to send thirty (30) LA Animal Services’ employees to the Best Friends 2018 National Conference in downtown LA for three days, right after the July 4 weekend, when owners are trying to reclaim lost dogs and shelters are overcrowded.
GM Barnette assured critics that the shelters would have no problem maintaining full service to the public and animals -- even with 30 employees missing. This brought her a "thumbs down" in the newsletter of Animal Shelter Professionals, which questioned . . . "why all 30?"
On April 15-18, 2019, eleven employees attended the Humane Society of the U.S. Expo in New Orleans, LA, for a total cost of $18,015.
On April 28, 2019, a Volunteer Appreciation Picnic (Griffith Park, a city of L.A. park) cost a whopping $17,300 for a total attendee count of 124 persons (104 volunteers, 11 LAAS staff members, 8 volunteer guests and 1 Council Office representative) -- or $139.51 per person for a picnic lunch.
BEST- KEPT SECRET - NEW ANIMAL WELFARE TRUST FUND ORDINANCE (As revised in 2018.)
The new Ordinance (CF No. 17-1141), which was requested by GM Barnette, approved by the Council and signed by the Mayor on June 19, 2018, allows the General Manager of Los Angeles Animal Services to implement ANY new program, other than pet sterilizations (these are funded by the Pet Sterilization Fund), and Council approval is required only on contracts exceeding $25,000. (This does not appear to preclude awarding short-term contracts (under $25,000 with options for renewal.)
Ostensibly this would have proper review by an educated Board of Commissioners and knowledgeable Council. Sadly, neither any member of the Commission nor the Council has a background or connection with animal sheltering (and neither does Barnette, who was the head of the small Seattle Humane Society when hired by the City of Los Angeles.)
Although there have been some expenditures for veterinary equipment and vaccines and improvements to the shelter, many expenditures have raised questions as to GM Barnette's (and the Commission's) judgment in the expenditure of donated funds.
It also describes third parties to whom information is disclosed, including vendors and service providers, other website users, and other nonprofits.
WE AWAIT THE CITY ATTORNEY'S DECISION ON USE OF CITY MAIL
There is no indication of a connection between General Manager Brenda Barnette agreeing or arranging for the California Science Center flyers to be sent out and the donation by the Annenberg Foundation.
However, obviously both Annenberg Foundation and PetSmart Charities benefit in fulfilling their missions by obtaining as much information as possible on adopters from shelters and all pet owners, which Pet Industry Figures show spent $72.56 billion in 2018 and estimate will spend $7.38 billion in 2019 on their furry family members.
It is imperative that taxpayers and officials understand how charitable income is being spent by government entities, that those dollars actually benefit our shelters and provide services to the agency.
This requires that there are publicly accessible, independent as well as internal, audits which monitor how "unrestricted donations for charitable purposes are spent or distributed."
But, right now -- to protect all donors -- we ask is why the Los Angeles City Department of Animal Services is placing its logo and using City resources for any unofficial/non-City endeavor? Why is dog-licensing information (addresses) being used for unofficial solicitation? Why was this not reviewed by the City Attorney? And what City official approved this?
(Phyllis M. Daugherty is a former City of Los Angeles employee and a contributor to CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.