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First Lawsuit Filed Against LA Animal Services to Open West Valley Animal Shelter

ANIMAL WATCH-A Woodland Hills non-profit animal rescue, Ady Gil World Conservation, reports that it has filed a lawsuit demanding the two City animal shelters closed in April -- West Valley and North Central -- be reopened by Los Angeles Animal Services General Manager Brenda Barnette, because of the resultant overwhelming increase in stray animals, according to the Los Angeles Times.

It appears other legal action may also follow. A spokesman for a group that said it wishes to remain anonymous at this time, stated it is considering filing an injunction to "stop the reconstitution of the West Valley Animal Shelter based upon discrimination against their community, deprivation of public safety and misuse of public funds approved by voters for the sole purpose of providing animal shelters." 

IS  BARNETTE ABANDONING THE VALLEY'S ANIMALS AND HUMANS? 

The City's own stats prove the need for two shelters for a geographic expanse that constitutes 40% of the total area of Los Angeles, with an estimated 1.77 million population. 

In 2019, the West Valley shelter impounded a total of 9,320 animals. The East Valley shelter impounded 14,605. Both totals increased from 2018 

There is no way the smaller East Valley shelter in Van Nuys, with only 57 cat cages and 162 dog kennels can safely accommodate a projected total in excess of 24,000 animals. They  will have to be held in multiples per cage/kennel, which will increase disease and serious or fatal fights. This is also a hazard and serious emotional drain on employees. 

This is blatant animal cruelty and is unnecessary because slightly reduced staffing on a rotational basis can accommodate the comparably small reduction in the LAAS budget. This also allows more animals that die in the shelter to not be added to the euthanasia stats, so that Best Friends' can boast about "No Kill L.A." 

Also, Barnette claims on her own December 2019 Woofstat report that 2,297 volunteers worked a total of 21,549 hours in LAAS shelters. If there is truly a staff shortage, certainly these trained, dedicated volunteer workers can ease the load on regular employees (without engaging in bargaining duties) sufficiently to allow all Los Angeles City shelters to stay open. 

The only alternative explanation would be that Barnette is closing the premier shelter, with the most cat cages (120) for the specific purpose of granting favors to non-profits at the request of major influential donors to the Department and/or to Councilman Paul Koretz and Mayor Eric Garcetti. This would also remove the activities at this shelter from the watchful eyes and scrutiny of the public. 

Barnette's Proposal will also be the abandonment of the West Valley in terms of timely field animal services, because Animal Control Officers must respond from Van Nuys in order to capture lost and stray animals, respond to dog attacks, wild animals in distress, or seriously injured animals hit by vehicles. 

Also, the only LAAS pasture/barn area for livestock and large animals held as evidence in cruelty cases or in emergencies is at the West Valley shelter. (Barnette's concession to possibly assign two officers at this shelter will not change the fact they must be transported to East Valley for impoundment.) 

HOW MUCH MONEY DOES BARNETTE NEED? 

The 2020-21 City budget shows Animal Services receives a total budget of $42,922,054 to run a department with only 345 employees. This includes basic expenditures such as utilities, maintenance, and repairs. She also supplements her budget with major donations and grants from national organizations, as evidenced by her frequent media releases.  

Although Barnette is complaining that there may not be enough employees to staff all the shelters, according to employees, only three Animal Control Officers and two management-level employees (which will not affect shelter/field services) are retiring. 

Also, as Barnette has reported to the Commission, the ACO positions removed are unfilled jobs and with seven new officers already hired and in training, the Department will actually have four more ACO's than pre-COVID-19.   

BARNETTE'S  PROPOSAL - UNCONSTITUTIONAL GIFT OF PUBLIC FUNDS? 

"The California Constitution prohibits public agencies. . .from making a gift of public funds," explains the law firm of Liebert, Cassidy, Whitmore (LCW).  

“Due to their unique operating environment, governments have a responsibility to be accountable for the use of resources that differs significantly from that of  business enterprises. . .most governments obtain resources primarily from the involuntary payment of taxes."  (GASB White Paper: Why Governmental Accounting and Financial Reporting Is – And Should Be – Different (April 2013). 

"This is to ensure accountability to constituents and to prevent misuse of this public money. The Constitution states, in relevant part: “The Legislature shall have no power. . .to make any gift or authorize the making of any gift, of any public money or thing of value to any individual, municipal or other corporation[.]”  (Const., Art. XVI, § 6.)  

“Courts have interpreted this provision to include all payments of public money for which there is no authority or enforceable claim, even if there is a moral or equitable obligation,” LCW explains.  (Emph. added.) 

"If the expenditure is for a private purpose, (in this case, the sale of an animal—there is no legal adoption process for animals--by a non-profit business/corporation under CA law) it will likely be an unlawful gift of public funds. (California Supreme Court decision in City of Oakland v. Garrison (1924) 194 Cal. 298, 302.)” 

DUTIES OF GOVERNMENT (TAX-FUNDED) vs. NON-PROFIT 

The City of Los Angeles, as a governmental entity, has another duty in regard to impounding and releasing stray or lost animals -- which are personal property. California shelters must hold them in a public facility for 72 hours to give the owner the opportunity to redeem the animal, or longer if the animal is licensed or microchipped. 

It MUST provide them with necessary veterinary care and it must assure that all dogs (and in some jurisdictions cats) has a rabies vaccination and a license tag (to verify current rabies shot) if it sells (called “an adoption”) them to a new owner. The “legal hold” period is required to establish the legal transfer of ownership. 

Thus, Barnette's recent "Finders, Keepers" program, which encourages strangers to keep your lost pet and then license them in 30 days, may meet some serious and expensive challenges in court.  (See:  "L.A. Animal Services Plan for 'Finders' to Keep Lost Pets OK'd by Council - Scheme or Scam?")

IS IT BARNETTE'S JOB TO PROMOTE NON-PROFIT 'BUSINESSES'? 

Barnette is paid generously ($315,000 annually) to assure that the City of Los Angeles provides humane animal shelters and law-enforcement that protects the public and all animals. She has many duties in that capacity, but helping non-profits prosper is not one of them -- especially when she attempts to use taxpayer money specifically for that purpose. 

If donors (including national non-profits) wish to donate to a local non-profit, those that work with animals can easily locate them and a bequest/financial or other gift made to them directly.  

It is not the City's job nor may GM Brenda Barnette re-purpose government funds (donated or otherwise) to an entity or individual -- no matter how closely related the activity -- other than to make direct payment for services, if allowed within restrictions placed on the original donation. 

CAN BARNETTE ‘RECONSTITUTE’ THE WEST VALLEY ANIMAL SHELTER? 

All of the current LA City shelters were built or renovated under Prop. F Bond funds, approved by City voters in 2000, causing all property owners in the City to incur a 30-year indebtedness -- SOLELY for the purpose of providing more, safer, convenient animal shelters throughout the City.   

Experts statistically determined a seventh shelter was needed in the Northeast Valley due to population growth and animal ownership. The City Council and Mayor never fully funded this beautiful 47,300 square-foot shelter, but it still served a vital function in safely housing evidence animals and overflow in emergencies, until Barnette became GM and bids were let for it to be run as a non-profit animal-adoption facility.  

Since then, Best Friends Animal Society leased it for $1-per-year, with the original provision of keeping 100 LA City shelter animals available for adoption at all times. Its legal designation as the "Northeast Animal Care Center" is still in place. 

ADDTIONAL POSSIBLE CONFLICTS OF INTEREST 

Rental/Eviction Office 

President of the LA Animal Services Commission, Larry Gross, is the founder and Executive Director of the Coalition for Economic Survival (CES), which is one of the most prominent renters-advocacy groups in Los Angeles. It is unknown, but certainly could be determined whether he was involved in the decision to include this non-relative service rent-free in a City facility. Regardless, anyone selected will either be a known ally or competitor and any involvement by Gross could undoubtedly be considered a conflict of interest. 

At the last Commission meeting, Gross verbally presented a potential scenario in which he expanded Barnette's estimate of possibly 41 future vacancies at LAAS to a dire situation of possibly 93 empty positions (without any specific supporting evidence this is likely to happen) apparently to strengthen the need to "reconstitute" the West Valley shelter.  

Sales of Animals by 'Rescues’ 

The issue of a gift of public funds also arises because private, non-profits are not limited to shelter "adoption" costs/fees and can sell the animals for any amount of profit – especially since Barnette acknowledges they are a “business.” There is also the possibility of challenges filed in court, and the City could be found to be liable for any accidents or attacks by the animals OWNED by the “rescue,” despite their being separately insured.   

Barnette assures a high-level (highly paid) onsite LA Animal Services manager will oversee all activities of these non-profit businesses in City space, which the law says is illegal. (A government employee providing personal management services to a non-government entity is another gift of public funds.) And how can the City possibly avoid liability when Animal Services is managing all of the tenant rescues

Exactly how the City will manage/supervise the business operation of the non-profits; to what standard will they be held for animal care, etc., and how will that be enforced? How will a Notice to Vacate be handled and on what grounds? 

The Dog Trainer  

How will the dog trainer, who will have a private office, be selected? Will this also place the City in jeopardy and create liability (especially since there is no government entity which certifies dog trainers?) 

Will it be the prison dog trainers, who were arbitrarily given a contract using the Animal Welfare Trust Fund money to take aggressive Pit Bulls to prisons to train them as family pets? (See: LA Animal Services "Prison Dog Training Program" Flyer Features Black Man with Pit Bull 

Or will it be the founder of the Dogs Playing for Life program, which places large numbers of dogs (mainly Pit Bulls) in a yard together for supposed recreation? (See:  Best Friends Animal Society in Dog Fight over Shock Collars)

BARNETTE CAN'T STOP SOLICITING ‘GIFT OF PUBLIC FUNDS’ DONATIONS! 

On Tuesday, August 25, 2020, GM Barnette is trying to find another way to use money that donors will believe is going to help animals in the shelter and pay it out for the benefit of "rescues," which are 501(c)3 tax-exempt non-profit corporations. 

These organizations are capable of soliciting their own donations and have an obligation to do so and to report that money directly to the Internal Revenue Service.  

GM Brenda Barnette has suddenly devised another method that the City can solicit donations funding for injured and ill animals that are NOT impounded animals but are actually already "pulled" from the shelter (changing ownership to the New Hope Partner) whether or not the partner then places them with a "foster." 

Here's her request to the Board: "LA Animal Services is requesting to use the STAR funds to pay for veterinarian care to treat severely injured, abused, and neglected shelter animals fostered by our New Hope Partners. After treatment, our New Hope Partners will care for and ultimately adopt out these broken animals." 

It all sounds so humane and tear-jerking that who can resist? However, according to the earlier description under the CA Code, this is specifically a solicitation to benefit specific private organizations (non-profit corporations), which is a "gift of public funds." (Const., Art. XVI, § 6) 

Many "rescues" specialize in these very needy, "broken" animals and raise thousands of dollars each -- often the total is far beyond the medical cost they have indicated in their plea. They are capable of handling their own "business," as Brenda describes them. 

The extremely complex chart Barnette has devised for partial payment by the "New Hope program member" in veterinary cases will require extensive time of staff members to administer -- staff which the City needs at the shelters in order to keep them open. (Read it here.)  

GM Brenda Barnette seems to be spending much of her City-paid time fundraising for other than LA Animal Services’ direct needs, which are to improve shelters, assure the comfort, safety and protection of the impounded animals and provide the best equipment possible for staff to do their jobs. Perhaps it is time for GM Barnette to consider whether she is doing justice to this job. 

The City Attorney definitely needs to sit down with GM Brenda Barnette and clarify financial issues. 

Or, perhaps, as a reader of last week's CityWatch article, Stop GM Barnette's Bullying Tactics at the West Valley Animal Shelter - Say ‘NO’ Now!, commented, "It is time to save the West Valley animal shelter and 'reconstitute' Brenda Barnette." 

 

(Phyllis M. Daugherty is a former City of LA employee and a contributor to CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.