ANIMAL WATCH-The Los Angeles Animal Services' website solicits donations to the Animal Welfare Trust Fund using irresistible images of puppies, kittens and a bunny and assuring donors their monetary gifts "will enhance the quality of life for shelter and other animals by funding animal supplies, medical equipment, improvements to Animal Shelters and other animal welfare-related projects undertaken by the Department of Animal Services."
Prospective donors are not informed that their generosity to homeless animals could also send highly paid LAAS management staff to Best Friends’ Animal Society Conference at the trendy Westin Bonaventure Hotel in downtown LA in July 2018.
But, on April 24, the LA Animal Services Commission did just that! It approved a request by General Manager Brenda Barnette to use donated Animal Welfare Trust Fund (AWTF) money to send thirty (30) LA Animal Services’ employees to the July 9-11 Best Friends 2018 National Conference. Barnette writes in her April 19 report, "The close proximity of the conference affords the Department of Animals (sic) Services the opportunity to send many more employees."
According to Barnette's report at the meeting, many LAAS managers will attend for the Department at a special discounted price of $275 per person. Included in the 30 employees are also shelter workers and field staff, who will not be on duty for three full days the weekend after the Fourth of July holiday. These are the days during which Barnette puts out a desperate plea each year for help from the public to foster animals for at least the weekend, because the shelters are overwhelmed with escaped animals frightened by fireworks.
However, this year, GM Barnette assured an astute shelter volunteer who brought this up at the meeting, that the shelters will have no problem maintaining full service to the public and animals -- even with 30 employees missing.
NO BEST FRIENDS’ DISCOUNT FOR LA ANIMAL SERVICES
Although, since 2011, Best Friends has enjoyed rent-free occupancy of the newest of seven LA City shelters built/renovated under Prop. F Bonds for which property owners are still paying, LA Animal Services will be charged the full early-registration price to attend the conference -- a total of $8,250.
GM Barnette was either misinformed or didn’t look at the Best Friends’ Registration Form which she included in the agenda packet. She told the Commissioners (who also apparently also didn’t read the packet) that Best Friends had provided a discount code to reduce the price for LAAS, implying that the $8,250 request from the AWTF was a real bargain, and she verbally verified that with one of her staff members in the audience. However, the National Conference registration form clearly states that the price for ANYONEregistering by April 6 is $275.
But the pitch worked, and Commissioners Roger Wolfson, Olivia Garcia and Larry Gross happily gave the shelter-animals' money to Best Friends.
In typical LA political-speak, Commission President Larry Gross described this as an "investment in assuring we have the best trained staff." And, Roger Wolfson gushed, "This is an opportunity to network and find out what is going on in all parts of the country and expand our vision." They weren't exactly sure what benefits will be bestowed in three days of sessions, especially for animal control officers and shelter staff, because Brenda read titles, like "Fundraising in the modern age," “Magic marketing and creative communications," and " Getting down with data." She didn't seem to have a comprehensive knowledge of actual content but alluded to networking and comparing ideas.
Commissioner Layne Dicker -- who has a dedicated page on the Best Friends' website praising his devotion and "pretty impressive fundraising," and who has been encouraging attendance at this conference since January in a submitted list of his 37 "priority items" for the Commission -- had reluctantly recused himself and left the room after a long, awkward argument with the Assistant City Attorney due to Dicker's inability to understand his potential for the appearance of a conflict of interest.
WHO ARE LA ANIMAL-WELFARE TRUST FUND DONORS?
The latest Los Angeles city census figures show the median per-capita income for LA residents in 2016 was $27,749, which had not changed much since 2014. This represents the average animal-loving, working person most likely to include a donation of $10 to $20 for the Animal Welfare Trust Fund with their dog license fee, to provide items for programs to enrich the lives of animals in the city’s six shelters.
There are also a number of bequests and targeted donations by long-time residents who want to be assured their legacy will directly benefit the homeless shelter animals in LA.
WHO BENEFITS FROM BARNETTE'S DECISION?
Here's a quick look at annual salaries of LAAS upper-management staff members who are likely to benefit from this decision by attendance at the Best Friends' Conference with Barnette, using AWTF funds. Transparent CA 2016 lists salaries, and includes health insurance, but not other items in the generous City benefits package, as follows: GM Brenda Barnette was paid $238,568.44; her two Assistant GM’s made $180,333.08 each; the two Director of Field Operations positions were at $143,057.07; and a Sr. Management Analyst receives $156,332.84.
According to Julie Castle, new CEO for Best Friends, the organization's annual income has grown to $130 million (up from $56 million reported when they came to LA), plus GuideStar.org shows Best Friends' last-reported assets at $100,285,253.
During public comment, Brenda Barnette was asked by the same astute shelter volunteer why attendance at this conference was not being paid out of the Animal Services' training fund provided in her annual budget.
PETA ASKS, "IS SENDING 30 PEOPLE ACTUALLY NECESSARY?"
PETA's Los Angeles office has led a relentless effort to get a working phone system at LA Animal Services so the needs of the public and animals can be served. The costumed PETA dog and cat have appeared at Mayor Eric Garcetti's media events to politely shame him into addressing this failure to care for the City's pets and strays and the humans who need help.
At the April 24 meeting, the wisdom of removing a large number of staff members from their vital shelter and field positions for three days was addressed eloquently by Diana Mendoza, PETA's Los Angeles Companion Animal Coordinator, who also runs the Let's Fix LA program. She addressed, in two minutes, all the important issues and questions ignored or dismissed by the Commission:
While PETA agrees there can be great value in attending conferences, is sending 30 people actually necessary? If there are specific workshops that the department feels are beneficial, then why not send a select group of employees and ask Best Friends to comp the fees? Or, since most conferences record their speeches, ask Best Friends to share the footage from the conference after the fact?
One of the biggest issues we see with Animal Services over and over again is the lack of staff to respond to calls in a timely manner. So, is it the best idea to take 30 people away from their jobs for 3 days so soon after the Fourth of July, when the department has repeatedly claimed in the past to have been so short staffed?
It’s inappropriate for a partner organization to take over $8,000 from the Animal Welfare Trust Fund while removing 30 employees from circulation for 3 days. Please consider a more responsible action and use of the city’s funds.
IS THE CONFERENCE A LEGAL USE OF AWTF DONATED FUNDS?
Apparently the LAAS General Manager and the Commission believe they have the right to determine how your donated Animal Welfare Trust Fund money is used, regardless of the strict guidelines for specific purposes, established in the LA Administrative Code when the fund was created in 1987.
The purpose of the restrictive use of non-targeted donations was to assure it could be regularly audited and not diverted to programs that might violate the public's trust and confidence and cause reluctance to give money to a City-managed fund.
It also allowed those who left bequests or wanted their donations used for a specific purpose to be able to restrict the expenditure of those funds with full assurance their directive would be honored, regardless of any political or management changes.
BRENDA BARNETTE HAS CHANGED THE AWTF, EFFECTIVE MAY 1, 2018
The public (and, especially, attorneys handling estates and bequests) need to be aware that on October 5, 2017, GM Brenda Barnette recommended changes to the language of the Animal Welfare Trust Fund to "make better use of those funds for the benefit of the animals in the City."
Barnette crafted new wording she wanted, and it was, of course, approved by Councilman Paul Koretz, who chairs the Personnel and Animal Welfare Committee (PAW), who then sent it to the City Council, where it was also approved.
It will allow the General Manager to spend Animal Welfare Trust Fund money for "New Programs," including, but not limited to, paying adoption fees or microchip/redemption fees for low-income persons, or other expenditures.
The wording "subject to approval by Council" was included only for new programs over $25,000, and already existed for acceptance of donations over that amount.
It was returned in final form by the City Attorney on April 12 and is currently awaiting final approval by the PAW Committee. It then goes directly to City Council, where it will undoubtedly pass on consent (without any further public hearing.)
Here's the link to Council File 17-1141, which revises the Animal Welfare Trust Fund and will affect any gifts, contributions or bequests received after May 1, 2018 (or as soon as it is approved).
The GM will have sole discretion regarding use of AWTF funds for such activities as sending managers and staff to a Best Friends' Conference, by merely obtaining a Council resolution of agreement to establish a 'new program.'
HOW WILL DONORS REACT?
Hopefully, the LA Animal Services' website will clearly explain this revision of the AWTF and accurately reflect the new "sharing" model of this long-respected, stable fund. Unfortunately, the public was not really involved in this decision. There was no major media announcement or other widespread communication.
On February 26, 2018, the Animal Welfare Trust fund showed a balance of $3,000,837.02 (with some of that amount restricted by the donors.)
Donors and attorneys will decide whether this revised charitable model fits their personal expectations, goals and requirements. If the fund is to continue its success, one thing is definite -- it must to be totally transparent.
How will donors feel about such expenditures as sending City employees to the Best Friends' National Conference or paying fees and other costs for financially challenged adopters? The future balance of the Fund will provide that answer.
(Phyllis M. Daugherty is a former City of LA employee and a contributor to CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.