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Has LA Animal Services Brenda Barnette Crossed the Line with Questionable Fundraising MOU?

ANIMAL WATCH-Was it an oversight or intentional that the new nonprofit proposed by General Manager Brenda Barnette to solicit funds for the Los Angeles Department of Animal Services was incorporated as “The Los Angeles Animal Rescue Foundation?” 

At the January 12, 2016 meeting of the Animal Services Commission, GM Brenda Barnette urged approval of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Los Angeles Animal Services and “The Los Angeles Animal Rescue Foundation, Inc.”, incorporated by former Villaraigosa-appointed Commissioner Maggie Neilson, CEO of Global Philanthropy.   

Brenda Barnette claims that the purpose is “…to support the work of the Department much the way the LAPD Foundation, the LAFD Foundation, the Library Foundation and others support the work of City Departments.” 

However, other city-department “supporting foundations” clearly mention in their name the agency for which they are soliciting funds. 

So why wasn’t “The Los Angeles Animal Rescue Foundation” incorporated as “Los Angeles Animal Services Foundation” or “Friends of Los Angeles Animal Services?” Both are available according to the CA Secretary of State.   

Ms. Neilson’s glib response to the Commission after that question was posed in public comment, was that “they” can change the name later. She didn’t explain why a compatible name was not used at the outset. 

Whether it is a lack of experience or perhaps being advised not to create any roadblocks for Brenda Barnette, none of the three attorneys on the Commission asked any probing questions about the blank spaces in the MOU or about a business plan, goals or officers. They were effusive over approving essentially a “blank check.” 

This was the first meeting after the resignation of Commissioner Jennifer Brent -- a tremendous loss, because she was the only Commissioner with actual animal sheltering and nonprofit management experience. 

Another obvious incongruence clouds the transparency of this proposed financial-support agreement: 

The MOU states:

“… the specific purpose of the Foundation is to raise funds to support the mission of the Department…;” 

The Articles of Incorporation for the Los Angeles Animal Rescue Foundation state:  

“The specific purpose of the Corporation is to ensure every animal has a home and   that no adoptable animals are euthanized in Los Angeles.” 

But the official mandated Mission Statement of the Department of Animal Services is clear:

        “To promote and protect the health, safety and welfare of animals and people.” 

Deputy City Attorney Dov Lesel reportedly helped develop this MOU. Why would a nonprofit charity be set up with a statement of purpose not closely related to the Mission Statement of the agency for which it purports to raise funds? 

There are fundamental legal and functional differences between a public, tax-funded animal control agency, such as L.A. Animal Services -- which is mandated to pick up and impound stray/sick animals, maintain open-entry shelters, and enforce laws to protect animals and people -- and a private, donation-based “rescue,” which offers homeless animals for adoption after an owner relinquishes them or fails to claim them from the shelter. 

Would donors seeking to support the idealistic goals of “The Los Angeles Rescue Foundation” feel deceived that their money is spent on the public-safety obligations of a city animal-control agency, including humane euthanasia when necessary? 

Annual financial statements of “The Los Angeles Animal Rescue Foundation” will be provided only to Brenda Barnette, the Department’s senior accountant, and the Commission. And, any other financial data or list of officers and/or employees will be provided only to the Department upon request, according to the MOU. 

One expert explained, “When a governmental agency, such as L.A. Animal Services, joins with an allied nonprofit to raise funds, they then have an unaccountable partner that is not subject to the scrutiny of CA Public Records Act requests.” 

L.A. Animal Services is definitely not cash-strapped or lacking in charitable funding. Although General Manager Brenda Barnette frequently claims she is hampered by a lack of funds, donors give generously and leave sizable bequests to support the homeless animals impounded at City shelters. 

According to GM Barnette’s report on January 26, 2016, there is a current balance of $2,288,560.00 in the Animal Welfare Trust Fund (AWTF), which is a carefully monitored and controlled charitable fund to assist the Department. (In fact, in late 2014, the balance was so high that Barnette was instructed by the Commission to spend $500,000.) 

The unrestricted current donations, which can be used for any existing program for the welfare of animals except spay/neuter, total $1,206,992.75.

The Animal Sterilization (Spay/Neuter) Fund shows a cash balance of $4,684,103.47 (as of 12/31/2015) from donations, grants, pet-adoption deposits, fees, and General Fund subsidy. 

In addition, the Department of Animal Services has a tax-funded 2015-16 operating budget of $43,950,107. 

The “Los Angeles Animal Rescue Foundation” is actually Brenda’s third (known) attempt to form a nonprofit. 

An August 13, 2014, report by Barnette to Mayor Garcetti regarding the creation of an Animal Foundation with former-Commissioner Maggie Neilson, is marked “Note and File.” 

It identifies that, “The General Manager is working with former Animal Services Commissioner Maggie Neilson, Partner and CEO of Global Philanthropy, to form "The Foundation," a public nonprofit to help support the work of Animal Services.” 

Then it took a strange turn -- proposing that “Part of The Foundation would use the abandoned South L.A. shelter as a job training location for community members…” Concluding, “Animal Services is working with Chrysalis, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a pathway to self-sufficiency for homeless and low-income individuals…” 

This is visionary; but, it is hard to grasp the nexus to raising money for an animal shelter. 

Former-Commissioner, Terri Marcellaro and GM Brenda Barnette were involved in forming the 2011 nonprofit, called “Friends of Los Angeles Animal Shelters” to solicit funds in the name of L.A. City shelter animals. Donor packages of up to $50,000 were planned to be offered by the Friends of LA Animal Shelters, according to their documents. 

Mr. Barnette was not entirely forthcoming in her report to the Commission about her involvement with this group.

Dov Lesel of the City Attorney’s Office and the City Administrative Office denied knowledge of an MOU or contract, in response to my inquiries; however, 187 pages of e-mails and other documents were obtained through CPRA requests.

A visit to the Friends of LA Animal Shelters website on November 14, 2012, showed under “Donate”: 

"Friends of L.A. Animal Shelters is the fundraising arm of the city shelters. If you give directly to the city, there is no guarantee your money will reach the animals. Any money donated to us is guaranteed to go directly to the animals."  (Note: This wording was changed soon after my CPRA was received by the City.) 

There was not then, and appears still not to be, an MOU or formal agreement with the City, although shelter animals are delivered daily (except Tuesday) to the Friends’ L.A. Love and Leashes adoption location at 1011 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica by L.A. City employees, using city vehicles, and picked up by 7:00 p.m.

There is no indication donated funds to these groups is given to L.A. Animal Services although they claim they are supporting the shelters. Nor do any of Ms. Barnette’s reports on the Animal Welfare Trust Fund mention donations from either group. 

Several questions need answers:

  • Was an MOU or formal contract ever entered into for this transport and/or adoption activity and to relieve the City of liability while the animals are at this location?
  • How many animals are actually being adopted at Loves and Leashes, since the City is investing a substantial amount of employee time and resources?
  • Under what authority is City property (animals) transferred to a new owner in an adoption processed in Santa Monica by other than a Los Angeles City employee? 

There is much discontent being expressed and questions arising about Ms. Barnette’s management performance and treatment of her employees. This is a time for her to either dispel the untruths or improve the issues that are creating discomfort for the Mayor. 

There are growing concerns among members of the City Council and the public about strays, animal protection and the condition of animals in the shelters. There is unpardonably slow response to calls for humane investigations of suffering, starving and abused animals. 

This is the time for Brenda Barnette to devote her attention to her duties and fulfill her obligations to the animals and residents of Los Angeles. Fundraising should be last on her list.                                                                       

(Animal activist Phyllis M. Daugherty writes for CityWatch and is a contributing writer to opposingviews.com.  She lives in Los Angeles.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.