Political Animal

It’s still Willie Brown’s town: Personal politics run amuck at City Hall

Mayor Ed Lee and ACC director Rebecca Katz at the grand opening of the ACC-PFE cat adoption center on Market Street. photo: corey stulce

Rebecca Katz was no wallflower when it came to advocating for the animals of San Francisco. During her six years as executive director of Animal Care and Control (ACC), the city’s public shelter, she pushed for a bigger budget, more staff, and a new facility to replace the current one, which is crumbling and outdated. She frequently went to the press with important issues, and she developed private partnerships to fill in where the city would not.

When the Chihuahua overpopulation hit crisis levels, Katz partnered with Virgin Airlines for Operation Chihuahua Airlift, sending the little dogs to New York City where they were in high demand. After two pit bulls were shot in the back by San Francisco police officers in two separate incidents, Katz contacted me about the fact that the department was no longer participating in training for how to handle dogs in the field — despite knowing that SFPD’s chief, Greg Suhr, would rather she kept quiet. I wrote two articles on the subject, and the SFPD reinstated its training.

When ACC couldn’t afford to feed the more than 11,000 animals it takes in annually, Katz forged a relationship with Pet Food Express (PFE), which brought in Halo Foods to donate the necessary provisions. She also worked with PFE to create a cat adoption center at its Market Street store. That’s where I first met interim mayor Ed Lee, who was on the campaign trail. As city administrator, Lee had been Katz’s boss when she worked as a city attorney, and he later appointed her as ACC’s director. As he posed for photos with a kitten on his shoulder, Lee told me how proud he was of Katz. “She’s doing an amazing job for the animals of San Francisco,” he said. “It’s something we both care a great deal about.” Lee was indeed elected mayor, but despite telling me how much he cared about animals — at PFE, during a subsequent interview for a profile of him that I wrote, and on a voice mail thanking me for that article — when he finalized his first budget, there was no money for ACC.

Katz continued her tireless, even relentless, efforts to get more funding, and it finally paid off when District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener took up the cause, holding a meeting at City Hall where person after person, including Katz, spoke about the dire needs of the shelter. Despite attempts by the private, multimillion-dollar San Francisco SPCA to dissuade the city from building a new shelter for ACC and to take over ACC’s adoption services (they went so far as to hire renowned lobbyist Alex Clemens), the city approved the additional funds.

Then, on Friday, July 25, 2014, with ACC at the most critical moment in its history, City Administrator Naomi Kelly abruptly fired Katz. The meeting, called by Katz, was supposed to be about the lack of support she felt she was receiving from Kelly’s office. For example, when ACC needed a new $36,000 blood machine, which would have cost $18,000 with rebates offered during a short window of time, Deputy City Administrator Ken Bukowski told Katz that she was out of money for the year and, despite the fact it was the city’s responsibility, instructed her to buy the blood machine from ACC’s donations. Yet, they found the funds to hire Kelly a new administrative analyst, Lih Meei Leu, to “oversee projects and programs related to immigrant inclusion” at a salary of over $114,000 per year. In stark contrast, Mara Lamboy, a 25-year veteran and assistant supervisor for ACC, makes $59,000.

Even the reproduction department, also under the city administrator, has a larger budget than ACC — nearly $7 million to ACC’s $5 million (and that $5 million includes capital planning for the new facility).

Katz was also concerned that Kelly frequently was unavailable to meet with her, despite the fact she met a number of times with leaders from the SF/SPCA without Katz’s knowledge. Katz planned to discuss all of this at the meeting, but as she headed to City Hall, Kelly had already phoned Eric Zuercher, ACC’s animal care supervisor, and appointed him acting director. When she arrived, Kelly told Katz that she “didn’t have confidence in her,” and that “she wasn’t a team player.” Because Katz served “at the pleasure of the city administrator,” Kelly didn’t need a reason to fire her other than not being pleased. Katz was then accompanied back to ACC to collect her things. Shortly after, Katz posted a letter on ACC’s Facebook page explaining her departure and thanking her team, but Kelly quickly removed the letter (you can read the letter on page 36).

To find out if others perceived Katz to be as incompetent and difficult to work with as Kelly did, I called more than a dozen current and former colleagues, from longtime City Hall insiders to kennel attendants to a former boss. What I heard was startling: nothing but positive comments about Katz, and nothing but negativity toward Kelly. Several City Hall insiders spoke to me on condition of anonymity. “Naomi Kelly is a ‘Willie Girl,’ and that’s how she got the job,” said one person who currently works at City Hall. “Amy Brown, who was interim city administrator prior to Mayor Lee’s appointment of Naomi, was infinitely more qualified, but she didn’t have the Willie Brown connections. Naomi wanted the job so she got it, but she’s insecure because she lacks the skills the job requires, and I think she was threatened by Rebecca, who is a strong, capable, intelligent woman who wouldn’t keep quiet or back down.”

Another insider, who worked more than 20 years at City Hall and continues a “strong relationship with government,” had even harsher words: “Kelly was a Willie Brown ornament much like Kamala Harris, and we who worked in city government were skeptical of her credentials … She was usually seen getting on the elevator late mornings and returning with bags and fancy purses mid-afternoon from a shopping spree. The words most commonly used to describe her were ‘pedantic,’ ‘sycophant,’ ‘dim,’ and ‘imperial.'” He believes Katz was fired because she was not part of Brown’s cabal. “Rebecca is very talented. She has managed what was a broken entity with great skill and professionalism. Her only ‘error’ was to be vociferous in her advocacy for increased resources to properly run an underfunded agency. But the real focus here needs to be on the loosely cobbled government structure of those who hold jobs only because of connections to Brown, [Gavin] Newsom, and Lee. The firing of Rebecca, who was well respected, is another example of political decisions based on who kow tows the best.”

Since Kelly reports directly to Mayor Lee, he obviously knew she was planning to fire Katz — the person he appointed as ACC’s director and commended often for her efforts — yet he did nothing to stop it. “Brown is still the puppeteer,” the 20-year City Hall veteran said. “When Lee was director of purchasing under Willie, I think all he did was approve contracts for Willie’s friends and clients; Lee was rewarded by moving up through the ranks into jobs he wasn’t qualified for and where he had little impact. Willie wanted Lee to be mayor, and he used his influence to make sure it happened.”

Kelly, who makes $270,000 per year, and her husband, Public Utilities Commission General Manager Harlan Kelly (also appointed by Lee), who makes $313,000, he says, aren’t qualified for their positions and are only where they are because of Lee’s relationship with Brown. “Both of them are Willie protégés. But what credentials does Harlan Kelly have to be G.M. of the PUC? It also takes a lot of skills to be city administrator; you have to know a lot about bonds. Do you think Naomi Kelly knows anything about bonds? Not unless it’s a store she goes to.”

Amy Brown says she had no problem working with Katz when she was interim city administrator. Now the director of agriculture and environment for Santa Clara County, where she oversees some of the county’s animal shelters, Brown is an animal lover and saw that same quality in Katz. “You couldn’t find someone who worked harder for the benefit of the animals,” she said. “I have nothing but the highest admiration and respect for her. In my opinion, she’s the epitome of a great public servant and an incredibly dedicated animal welfare proponent.”

ACC’s lead animal care attendant Sandra Bernal also praised Katz’s dedication. “Rebecca is very passionate about animals,” Bernal said. “And she always wanted to do the right thing for her staff. She had an open-door policy for anyone who wanted to talk to her at any time. We lost a great leader. It’s extremely sad.”

Another ACC employee who asked to remain anonymous also spoke highly of her former boss. “She raised awareness about the shelter; she got people to come visit, and it surprised us. She made us want to come to work everyday, and you don’t see that at other shelters. She made us better.” She recalled the day Katz returned to retrieve her belongings. “We were all just in shock and so upset. We could see how emotional she was. I’m sure they didn’t want her to do it, but she called us all into the lobby to thank us and say goodbye. It meant a lot to us. That is Rebecca.”

Kat Brown, ACC’s deputy director until her recent retirement, said the firing doesn’t make sense. “Things are lined up in a way it’s never been in my 15 years at the shelter. Her dedication, her tirelessness, her advocacy, her leadership, brought the additional funding and the promise of a badly needed new facility. She built up Friends of ACC to a solid nonprofit; she started behavioral and fostering programs, she forged great private partnerships like PFE, and now when ACC has everything lined up they have no leader.”

Brown also says that Kelly showed little interest in ACC. “When Amy Brown was city administrator, she was down at ACC a lot and we got a lot done under Amy. She truly cared about animals. Naomi did one ride-along with one officer for a couple of hours. There’s an expectation by the city of San Francisco that the public will support by donation what is mandated by law.”

As for the future of ACC, Brown says she is concerned. “Rebecca was there 12 hours a day, and when she wasn’t there she was texting and calling. It was a mission and a passion. She was an advocate for her staff and for the animals in their care. Who are they going to get? That’s the other part of this. They left the agency rudderless at the most crucial time. I feel really sad for the city; they’ve lost a real leader.”

The Marina Times reached out to the city administrator’s office for comment regarding the termination of Rebecca Katz. Project Manager Bill Barnes said in an e-mail: “The City Administrator cannot comment on Ms. Katz’s departure because it is a personnel matter.”

Rebecca Katz’s farewell

The following letter was posted to ACC’s Facebook page by outgoing ACC head Rebecca Katz.

Friday, July 25, 2014, was my last day at SF/ACC. Many of you may know that despite my commitment to the department and its objectives, I did not feel that there was support for me from my supervisor to fulfill the agency’s mission and our difference of opinions led to her asking me to leave.

Nonetheless, I want to take a moment to let everyone who follows this page know that it has been my great honor and privilege to serve in an agency that makes such a tremendous difference for so many residents of San Francisco. I have often said that SF/ACC has the most amazing and compassionate staff who are underappreciated and under-recognized but continue their work out of a commitment to the mission of improving the lives of both animals and people. Similarly, I have praised the dedication of volunteers who steadfastly support the animals and the agency. And, I have thanked the partners whose allegiance and assistance has allowed SF/ACC to continue protecting animals from inhumane treatment as well as preserving safe relationships between animals and humans. But I’d like to emphasize it again to pay tribute to those who are too often taken for granted.

Over the past six years, the team of staff, volunteers, and supporters has accomplished amazing feats. With the economic downturn that began in 2008, the number of dogs coming into the shelter increased dramatically. Despite a nearly 31-percent uptick in dogs impounded, SF/ACC’s save rate increased from 83 percent to 88 percent for canines. Much of that success is due to the strong outreach efforts of staff and volunteers that resulted in a 37-percent increase in dog adoptions. For cats, the intakes dropped significantly (37 percent) but both the save rate and adoption numbers increased as well. The save rate for small animals has increased also due to the heavy lifting of ACC staff, volunteers, and of course partners. I proudly note that SF/ACC has always been mindful of the value of all animals’ lives, including those that often go unnoticed such as pigeons, rats, mice, lizards, rabbits, etc. Even with its success, SF/ACC recognizes that there is more to do and refuses to rest on its laurels. SF/ACC has programs in place to constantly try to help all the animals regardless of age, condition, or species in addition to enforcing animal welfare laws, investigating complaints, and more.

In addition, the SF/ACC team created innovative programs such as WOOF, which paired shelter dogs with people in supportive housing and gave training and life skills to both. In collaboration with the mayor’s HOPE office, WOOF helped to demonstrate that the relationship we have with animals and the bond we form with them can help us to better ourselves. Improving the lives of both animals and people is something the agency does every single day in so many different ways. Also, with the support of partner Pet Food Express, SF/ACC opened its first satellite adoption center on Market Street, which has helped to place hundreds of felines as well as many rabbits and raise awareness of SF/ACC’s work. SF/ACC also increased attention to the sudden overpopulation of Chihuahuas in California shelters when, with its partner Virgin America, “Operation Chihuahua” moved over 50 dogs from the shelter here to the East Coast where there is demand for them. Another success over the past six years was the growth of Friends of SF/ACC’s assets by over 500 percent — an achievement that allowed the agency to expand behavior and training resources for dogs as well as for cats and small domesticated animals. The board members of that 501(c)3, and the co-presidents Jane Tobin & Lisa Stanziano in particular, have worked tirelessly to support the agency and the absurdly high number of hours they give are without any personal financial compensation. The increase in funds has allowed Friends to establish a special medical fund for animals that the city won’t pay to treat and to work on developing a foster program that has, heretofore, been improvised at best. Those programs are in addition to the support Friends has given SF/ACC for many years, including purchasing equipment the city should have provided, awarding grants to rescue partners, sponsoring low-cost veterinary clinics and more. This year, SF/ACC received funding to increase staffing by 6+ employees – a boost greater than any since SF/ACC opened its doors 25 years ago.

The list goes on…..

The general public often misunderstands the work of open-admissions shelters, especially when the public is inundated by the marketing of well-funded, private agencies. Further, government officials rarely appreciate the work done by their municipal departments, instead assuming that staff spends their days playing with animals and feeling privileged to receive any salary whatsoever. Meanwhile, I can tell you that the staff at SF/ACC faces extraordinarily challenging situations every day – people with mental illness, violent criminals, peculiar rituals, and haunting cases of abuse. They don’t do it for the glory, they don’t do it for the perks, and they certainly don’t do it for satisfactory salaries – they do it because they feel devotion to the animals and to all residents of San Francisco. And for that, I do not regret one day of working with this outstanding crew over the past six years. I thank them all and wish them continued success under the skilled leadership of Eric Zuercher – another dedicated and caring animal advocate – and hope the city will recognize and support this amazing department of which it should be very proud!

With gratitude and sincerity,

Rebecca Katz

From the time she was a child, Rebecca Katz loved animals.
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