NEIGHBORHOOD POLITICS-Is the LA Animal Services Department (LAAS) going down the rabbit hole of violating the First Amendment rights of its most qualified volunteers? The volunteers, as well as the animals they care for, deserve better.
The Neighborhood Council Budget Advocates are calling for an investigation of the Animal Services Department’s Volunteer Program.
Volunteers at LAAS provide tens of thousands of hours of free work to the Department. Without the volunteers, it would cost the City millions of dollars more to run the animal shelters. The volunteers greatly improve the quality of life of the animals in the shelters, taking them for walks, providing training, bringing dogs into play groups, caring for the animals, assisting with adoptions, cleaning kennels, doing laundry and dishes, etc. Because of the chronic shortage of regular employees called Animal Care Technicians (ACTs), the animals would receive very little of this care if it weren’t for the volunteers.
To the credit of LAAS, the recruitment of new volunteers has increased over the last two years. However, there are still many people who would like to become volunteers, and volunteers are dropping out and/or not completing training. The City and the animals are still losing out on thousands of free volunteer hours.
While LAAS compiles statistics on the number of new volunteers and total volunteer hours, it does not compile statistics on volunteer retention and experience levels of volunteers. Volunteer retention appears to be low. Statistics should be compiled and if in fact it is low, the reasons for that determined.
Of even more concern is that some of the most experienced and dedicated volunteers are being terminated, suspended, or pressured into quitting. These volunteers have, over the years, raised concerns about shelter conditions, treatment of the animals, and/or the killing of animals.
An investigation should be conducted to determine whether the exercise of First Amendment rights by these volunteers contributed to their terminations, and whether these volunteers were afforded due process prior to termination. Such an investigation is necessary because terminating, suspending, and/or driving away experienced volunteers because they complain about shelter conditions, or denying these volunteers due process, would be a terrible mistake, for many reasons, including:
- The shelters are losing their best, most experienced, and most dedicated volunteers (in terms of the time they spend and their ability to deal with the animals), which is a tremendous waste of City resources. Some of the terminated volunteers had been volunteering more than 10 years, putting in thousands of hours. The experience and training they have regarding animals and things that can happen at the shelters is invaluable.
- It could prevent important information from reaching Department management.
- It should be determined if these terminations have created a climate of fear and intimidation among the remaining volunteers.
- It may result in significant liability for the City as a result of lawsuits for suppression of First Amendment rights and violation of due process.
- Worst of all, this loss of experienced volunteers has a serious detrimental effect on the animals. The dogs that these volunteers have been taking out for walks are not getting that necessary exercise and care, because the new volunteers are not deemed experienced enough to take many of these dogs out. The mental, physical, and behavioral condition of these dogs will deteriorate. These dogs will sit locked in their kennels, 24/7, until they are adopted or put to death because they are not being adopted. These dogs will not be photographed, videotaped, and networked, decreasing their chances of adoption. The same is true of cats and rabbits.
Each of the six City shelters has an employee who is the Volunteer Liaison. The Volunteer Liaisons should be protecting volunteers from unwarranted terminations. If there are to be Volunteer Liaisons, an essential part of their job should be improving retention and maintaining a core of experienced volunteers. While it may be difficult for the Volunteer Liaisons to stand up to their superiors who want to unjustly terminate an outspoken volunteer, the Liaisons should be protected if they do so.
Last year, the Budget Advocates recommended that the Volunteer Liaison positions should be made permanent full-time positions. The Budget Advocates still support that in concept. However, the issues regarding volunteer retention and the termination of the most experienced volunteers should be resolved before that is done. The Budget Advocates call for an investigation of the volunteer program, volunteer retention, and termination of shelter volunteers, to be undertaken by an entity outside of LAAS, such as the City Controller’s Office and/or the City Attorney’s Office.
(Jeffrey Mausner (see https://mausnerlaw.com/ ) is the Valley Alliance of Neighborhood Councils Liaison to the Los Angeles Animal Services Department, a Neighborhood Council Budget Advocate, 2nd Vice President of the Tarzana Neighborhood Council and Chair of its Animal Welfare Committee, and a Volunteer at the West Valley Animal Shelter. He is a retired attorney and law school professor and was formerly a Federal Prosecutor for the U.S. Justice Department.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.