Is #MeToo an Excuse for LAAS GM Brenda Barnette to Launch A Witch Hunt?

ANIMAL WATCH-In the midst of #MeToo Movement controversy, LA Animal Services' employees received a City of Los Angeles Inter-departmental Correspondence form recently with the subject line: "Notification of Close Personal Association," issued April 1, 2009.

The irony of the unsigned notice dates a decade ago on April Fools' Day was not lost on some who asked, "Is this a joke?" 

As has been typical of Brenda Barnette since her appointment as General Manager of Los Angeles Animal Services Department in 2010, tenured employees are concerned that this may be another witch hunt quietly launched to threaten employees. Barnette is asking about not only any business or conflict-of-interest associations but also “close personal relationships.” 

She is using a decade-old advisory "Employment of Relatives," which is considerably different from the poorly written, "Notification of Close Personal Association," which states: 

It is the responsibility of each employee to promptly report any existing or potential close personal relationships.  Individuals in a 'close personal relationship' include not only relatives (by blood or marriage), but also unrelated individuals who have a romantic relationship, reside in the same household or have involvement in a business or financial relationship.  Failure to make close personal association notification may result in disciplinary action up to and including termination. 

The Department of Animal Services is reconciling its records and creating a new database to maintain these records.  All records will be maintained on a confidential and need-to-know basis. 

First of all, who needs to know? Plus, a few other initial questions arise, such as; "what constitutes a 'potential' close personal relationship? 

 And, while it is definitely preferable that "unrelated" individuals have romantic relationships, rather than engaging in incest, exactly what does the City perceive as a "romantic" relationship? 

Is this exchange of Valentine cards or a one-night stand, which doesn't even last long enough to document? Since not all sexual encounters are "romantic," are the words, "I love you" required?

How does Animal Services deal with an employee who laughingly admitted to filling out two pages of names? 

And, what about the repercussions of exposing a personal intention for a "potential" romance or a brief affair with someone who is married? Or a secret same-sex relationship with someone who is in a heterosexual commitment--possibly with a family involved?  

What if this form is used to misrepresent and retaliate against someone who has rejected advances?  Is Brenda Barnette's staff or the Personnel Department going to interrogate someone (of either gender) who said, "No" and nothing further occurred? 

Who in Animal Services' management can be trusted to maintain privacy about a personal relationship that has no bearing on confidentiality and does not compromise ethics or finances? Especially since GM Brenda Barnette has maintained a revolving-door policy for upper-management staff, which has involved at least six different Assistant GM's since 2010. 

Additionally, where is the correlation between the April 1, 2009, "Employment of Relatives" statement of policy and the 2018 "Notification of Close Personal Association"?  With the high salaries of City employees, shouldn't the Personnel Department, which is listed at the top, produce a current policy? 

Finally, a small box at the bottom of the form states, "After completed, please forward to: Human Resources Services, Mail Stop 505, 200 N. Spring Street, Room 1805, Los Angeles, CA 90012." 

A MAIL STOP? SO MUCH FOR CONFIDENTIALITY!  

EMPLOYEE/POLICY MANUAL OR POSTING 

There appears to be no Policy and Procedures Manual or location of legal postings on policy available in the Department of Animal Services since the advent of Brenda Barnette, who issues directives on the intra-net posting board which are removed within a few days, according to employees. 

All employment and legal advisors state that laws must be consistent and nondiscriminatory and must be clearly stated in an Employee Manual or posted so employees are fully informed of current policies and procedures. 

Judging from the above, would you trust your personal-relationship information with an employer which cannot even produce a comprehensive updated policy before threatening employees with discipline or termination? 

Remember, Los Angeles residents and business owners, this is our tax dollars at work! 

ARE 'LOVE CONTRACTS' AHEAD FOR LA ANIMAL SERVICES? 

An April 25, 2018 post on "Love Contracts by LegalMatch.com, explains that

"a love contract is a contract signed by two employees in a romantic relationship in the same company. . .The policies exist to prevent sexual harassment suits filed against the company. " 

Janice Lim writes that, "A typical love contract will prohibit all forms of sexual harassment, including quid pro quo and any other unwanted sexual advances. It typically states that the relationship is consensual and will not be a negative impact on work." 

A love contract does not preclude transferring one employee to another department, if there is any concern about conflict of interest or sharing confidential information. 

It sets the rules and can protect employees from retaliation after the relationship ends and it can limit public displays of affection "to protect other employees from a hostile work environment."   

California Public Agency Labor & Employment blog, states that 'Love Contracts' are less common today because employers rely on policies to address and manage workplace relationships.  

This site also addresses "Employee Privacy," stating that regardless of dating in the workplace or other policies, "...an employer ultimately may not be able to prevent two employees from engaging in a personal relationship outside of the workplace.  Also, employees can in some circumstances make arguments that they have an expectation of privacy in their personal off-duty relationships." 

Attorney Jeffrey Zinder, with the firm of Zinder & Koch in Mission Hills, referred to the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), under MARITAL OR FAMILY STATUS, and opined: 

 These questions need to address job performance and, if there is a policy concerning”familiar / business relationships” outside of work which could violate the policy (if they have one) of no close persons working together, then they probably are allowed to be asked. 

ONE EXCEPTION TO CLOSE PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS - THE SMART TEAM 

On August 6, 2018, we asked "Why is GM Barnett  Protecting LA’s Animal Services SMART Leaders?"  

GM Brenda Barnette's discussion at Commission meetings of LAAS officers' daily heroic actions for animals usually results in the latest news on the exploits of the Los Angeles Specialized Mobile Animal Rescue Team (SMART) -- praising Armando Navarrete, Annette Ramirez and Ernesto Poblano.  

On August 1, NBC reported on the LA Animal Services' Specialized Mobile Animal Rescue Team (SMART), “You Suit Up like Superman and Go Save Animals,” in which Sydney Kalich said the Specialized Mobile Animal Rescue Team, started in 2008, was "founded to provide additional support for LA Animal Services." But it seems at least two of the self-proclaimed "elite" team leaders, Ramirez and Poblano, may have other plans.  

WHY DOESN'T "SMART" VIDEO HAVE AN APPROVED CITY CONTRACT? 

A video camera seems to accompany SMART on every rescue, and they produced a documentary which is for sale on Amazon and other internet locations, but that movie seems to not have a City contract approved by Barnette, the City Attorney, nor any other official (according to responses to recent California Public Records Act requests.)  

Although readers are advised that they need to purchase a license from the producer of the film in order to show it publicly and they can purchase it for private viewing, where is the money going and why is there no legal document approving the use of City equipment and LA Animal Services on-the-clock "rescue" activities? There is also no apparent knowledge of this on-going sale and commercial activity by the City Attorney or City Controller? 

Despite Barnette's awareness of the "romantic relationship" which is publicized in the SMART movie, where Animal Control Officers Annette Ramirez and Armando Navarette discuss a long shared-living arrangement, Annette Ramirez has now been promoted to Director of Field Operations, so apparently the "close personal relationship," which is implied to possibly cause employees to be transferred to another department or be terminated (according to the City communication) does not apply to the SMART Team. 

The concern is why GM Brenda Barnette is ignoring known problems involving the leadership of SMART -- including setting up non-profit organizations using the same or similar names as used by LA City and LA Animal Services -- an act for which other employees have received severe disciplinary action based merely on allegations. 

And, is she ignoring LA Superior Court documents regarding Annette Ramirez (see article.) 

BARNETTE IS NO STRANGER TO ‘WITCH HUNTS’ 

Brenda Barnette is no stranger to conducting "witch hunts," which have placed long-term exemplary employees on administrative leave to investigate possible illegal or unethical conduct.  

All investigations were conducted Barnette's request by LAPD and the City Controller at great expense to taxpayers. Not one of Barnette's accusations resulted in more than destroying reputations and morale of dedicated LA Animal Services employees. 

ANIMAL SHELTERS "RAIDED" BY LAPD 

On August 4, 2011, Los Angeles Police Department officers conducted an unannounced early-morning weapons raid on all six LA City animal shelters, initiated by Animal Services GM Brenda Barnette, who sent a note with the police telling her employees, “Please give LAPD any and all hand guns, rifles, shotguns and ammunition that are at your shelter.” 

Was this shocking LAPD removal of all LAAS’ weapons just an “inventory,” as Ms. Barnette later told reporters in the resulting media frenzy? Or was it a ploy by Barnette to erode public and officials’ confidence in LAAS employees and cover up her own inability to effectively manage this City department? 

Was “Weapons Raid” A Smokescreen to Cover Best Friends’ Takeover? 

In 2011, when the new $19-million North East Valley (Mission) shelter was gifted by the Mayor and City Council for use by Best Friends Animal Society   at no rent and free utilities, both GM Brenda Barnette and Commissioner Terri Macellaro were both on the Steering Committee for  Best Friends’ “No More Homeless Pets” program and BOTH  testified for swift approval of this contract. 

While Animal Services officers struggled to minimize the suffering of severely injured wildlife without the firearms required for humane field euthanasia, Best Friends held an August 6 event in West Hollywood for “No More Homeless Pets." 

Was this just an “inventory,” as Ms. Barnette later told reporters in the resulting media frenzy? Or was it a ploy by Barnette to erode public and officials’ confidence in LAAS employees and cover up her own inability to effectively manage LA Animal ServicesNo guns were found missing and there had been no reports of inappropriate use of firearms or ammunition. 

LAAS CAPTAINS AGAIN PLACED ON LEAVE WITH NO CHARGES 

On February 12, 2012, General Manager Brenda Barnette placed six Animal Services Captains on paid administrative leave during an investigation over shelter vending-machine contracts. 

With no notice other than badges that no longer opened the city shelter gate or the sudden blackout of their computers, or Barnette’s terse call to their homes on their day off, LA Animal Services lost its entire upper level of field management and about 150 years of irreplaceable hand-on experience in safeguarding animals and residents of the 469-square-mile area of the city of Los Angeles. 

The Daily News reported, “The six captains were being investigated for engaging in a long-standing shelter tradition of negotiating informal contracts with vending machine companies in exchange for shelter benefits, according to a highly placed Animal Services official.” 

There was no secret about the vending machines, which reportedly have provided $20 to $30 a month to the shelter, used as petty cash for animal-event decorations, prizes and pizza for workers and volunteers. 

GM Brenda Barnette signed an amended policy in February 2011, granting Captains permission to earn shelter money through recycling or machine vending, as long as they kept records. Now they are being investigated by LAPD Burglary Crimes Division. 

Dana Bartholomew of the Daily News explained, “None of the captains was accused of pocketing cash from the vending machine kitty, sources said…They were told they had violated a state conflict-of-interest law that says workers can't personally benefit from contracts they implement.” They were told by a police detective that their crime was eating pizza at the shelter they'd helped buy by contracting for the vending machines. 

CHOOSING INCOMPETENCE? 

Shortly after she was hired, Brenda Barnette chose an outsider, Mark Salazar, as her new Director of Field Operations, although there were experienced Captains on the list. (She also promoted a female Captain as a Director, but then put her on leave for the current “pizzagate” investigation.) Mark Salazar was thus in charge of all LAAS field operations and shelters. 

What made Mark Salazar stand out on a list of potential senior staff hopefuls? Salazar had a brief stint as an entry-level animal control officer in the LA area over ten years earlier. Most recently his resume included a front-page suit against himself and Riverside, CA, for sexual harassment and discrimination, filed by five code enforcement officers Salazar supervised in 2008. (Press Telegram, 3/19/08 and 10/6/08.) 

Just before coming to LAAS, according to news reports, Mark Salazar resigned as Director of the small Northeast Texas Humane Society in Longview, on the heels of headlines in Newsjournal.com (10/14/10) “Dispute grows over contract with Humane Society” and “Open the Books: Humane Society unwillingness to open records raises questions. (10/17/10). The article states that the Humane Society refused the request of the city which funds it to conduct an audit of its finances. 

NO MISSING DOGS OR FALSIFIED TIME CARDS - LAPD REPORTS 

On June 2, 2011, Brenda Barnette announced to the media that up to 64 dogs were missing from LA Animal Services kennels, and intimating it was the fault of employees. But she later admitted that “clerical errors may be partly to blame...” LAPD was called in by Ms. Barnette to solve the missing-pooch mystery. 

She did not mention that she had ordered keys to the kennels issued to volunteers over the protests of senior shelter staff who said they would not be able to monitor and insure the safety of either animals or humans in the shelters. And there was the public assurance of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s office that, “the Animal Services Department has asked for help investigating the matter.” 

By July 14, 2011, LAPD attention had expanded to alleged timecard fraud by a kennel supervisor. LA Times headlines blared, “Los Angeles Animal Services: Probe of LA Animal Services agency widens…Personnel investigators try to figure out if [ten employees] timecards were filled out fraudulently.” 

Captains Cleared in 'Pizzagate' Case 

On June 14, 2012, the Daily News reported, "Six Los Angeles Animal Services captains returned to work this week after being cleared of any wrongdoing for improper vending machine contracts during "Pizzagate." 

Five captains and a director of field operations had been on paid administrative leave for 17 weeks during a Los Angeles police probe. Another captain had sat home 11 months. The cost of their combined paid leave to taxpayers: $426,000, union officials calculated. 

"There's nothing there," said Victor Gordo, an attorney for the Laborers' International Union of North America, Local 777, which represents the captains. "(It) was spent while these people were sitting at home. 

WHY EMPLOYEES ARE SUSPICIOUS OF "CLOSE PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS" SURVEY 

Now, with all-female upper-level management staff, Brenda suddenly wants to know details of employees' "close associations." 

As has been typical of Brenda Barnette since her appointment as General Manager of Los Angeles Animal Services Department in 2010, could his be just another harmful witch hunt launched to threaten employees?

 

(Phyllis M Daugherty is a contributor to CityWatch and a former LA City employee. She is currently employed by the U.S. Postal Service.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.