On Thursday, October 20, the confrontational Animal Defense League Los Angeles called off a scheduled weekend protest outside the Mount Washington home of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. The mayor, the animal rights group said, had finally agreed to meet. At issue was a campaign promise, made by the mayor, to fire L.A. Animal Services General Manager Guerdon Stuckey, who is wildly unpopular in the humane community.
By Saturday night, and immediately following that face-to-face meeting, the protest happened anyway. An ADLLA press release the next morning stated: "Villaraigosa Ö will not fulfill his promise he made to the humane community and fire Stuckey at this time."
"He Ö stated as long as Ďactivistsí were targeting Stuckey, he would not be Ďbulliedí into firing him," said Dr. Jerry Vlasak, press officer for the underground Animal Liberation Front, via e-mail to CityBeat. "His image and ego are obviously more important to this arrogant mayor than the lives of innocent animals."
Both activists and non-activists alike, however, say this is just cover for Stuckey, who may be responsible for bungling of one of the cityís most non-politicized animal services: the popular program to spay and neuter the pets of low-income residents. The contract problem, which some describe as "scandalous," represents a loss to the city of $1.1 million over three years in free spay/neuter services to the poor and homeless.
"The city got goosed," said Pam Wilkinson, executive director of the Coalition for Pets and Public Safety, "and the Coalition is saddened. Our only goal is to have as many pets spay/neutered as possible."
Short history: The Sam Simon Foundation, a private non-profit funded solely by The Simpsons producer Sam Simon, had been running a spay/neuter mobile clinic independently from the city for several years. The SSF clinic (also called a "spaymobile" or van) provided three to four days per week of free spay/neuter surgeries in poor areas of the city and L.A. County. Simon paid for this out of his own pocket.
The city had its own program with a mobile clinic that serviced poor areas of the city, including Watts, up to five days per week. This van was donated to the city by Board of Animal Services Commissioner and Coalition founder Erika Brunson at a cost of $160,000. It costs $500,000 annually to offer spay/neuter services five days per week, and the city paid this to the Texas-based Spay Neuter Assistance Program, or S.N.A.P.
"Itís a great cause. In these communities, people might not even have access to a vet, money Ö a lot of them donít even have a car to take their animals to a clinic," says Dr. Robert Goldman, who performed surgeries for S.N.A.P.
According to a former contract administrator for the city, S.N.A.P. was finally taken off the project amid allegations that S.N.A.P.ís L.A. management (which did not include Goldman) was meeting its quota of 5,000 operations a year by including wealthier people not eligible for the service. In Spring 2005, Stuckey put out a "request for proposals" to enlist other contractors.
A proposal from the Sam Simon Foundation was selected. It promised to operate two vans Ė the SSF van and the city van donated by Brunson. SSF promised to provide the city with eight days of surgery per week, and a minimum of 7,000 operations per year.
CityBeat obtained copies from the department and the promise, under the bold subhead "Two for One," reads as follows: "Pursuant to separate arrangements and a separate program, the Sam Simon Foundation will be operating the mobile clinic belonging to the Coalition for Pets & Public Safety Ö to provide an additional 4 days of free spay/neuter services in greater Los Angeles. The City can announce to its constituents that two clinics Ö are available 8 days a week."
However, when final contracts were drawn up, one mobile clinic was taken off the table, along with three days per week of surgeries. The contract signed by Stuckey had the SSF van out only five days per week, with split shifts on Saturday.
Critics say that the poor and homeless now get half the services. Sam Simon had been paying to run his charity spaymobile entirely with his own money. But as a result of Stuckeyís deal, the city is now paying in part for Sam Simonís charity, and one existing mobile hospital was taken off the streets. When contacted, Sam Simon manager Rachel Papp (formerly of the S.N.A.P program) denied that the proposal had promised "Two for One," and insisted SSF was also paying a couple-hundred thousand dollars in "education" and "promotion."
Once it became apparent that SSF wasnít going to fulfill the "Two for One," Brunson got her own attorneys to work it out. She offered to purchase a brand new van for the city at a cost of $180,000, so that SSF couldnít continue to use the excuse that the other van was "too old."
"I told them, you have to run two vans and we will pay for one of the three days," she said. She even offered to contribute $110,000 a year to cover it. SSF would only be responsible for the other two days per week.
"I met Stuckey for lunch at the Bel-Air Hotel. I said, ĎGet it in writing that you have the extra van and the extra days. Make sure you have this in writing,í" Brunson said.
Stuckey originally agreed to an interview for this piece, but later was unavailable.
Much of this went down prior to Villaraigosa taking office, but the mayor is now promising to look at the deal. "If it does not move the city toward an aggressive spay neuter program, the mayor will make changes," administration spokesperson Janelle Erickson said. "He has made it clear that he wants the department to become more aggressive with their spay-neuter program."
"[Stuckey] did not live up to his fiduciary responsibility to the city," says Stand Foundation founder/animal rescuer Daniel Guss, who works helping the homeless get spay-neuter operations for their pets. "That alone should have been cause for his resignation. The ramification of that is that people are thinking heís getting a kickback. Iím not saying that, but when the GM issues a contract that gets you fewer things than the city was promised, it makes you wonder."
Some addressed their concerns with Assistant City Attorney Dov Lesel, who wasnít aware of the difference between the proposal and the contract until after the deal was signed. "People were asking me questions and I had not seen the proposal and couldnít answer," Lesel recalls. "But whether or not there were deals going on in the back, I canít speak to that. I have no idea.
"Our office isnít an investigative agency. We will review paper trails, as I did, to make sure that everything was done correctly Ö . Beyond that, itís much like investigating a white-collar crime. I realize people are alleging this. Iíve spoken to a number of them, but to investigate, you need to go to the D.A."
According to doctors who worked on the program, a pledge to complete 7,000 surgeries per year on a five-day schedule is seriously stretching things. "I wouldnít want to be the animal on that second shift," Goldman warns. "Itís reckless."
"I want to make sure you quote me accurately: I had no part in it," said Dr. Jaime Velasco, who was employed by the Sam Simon Foundation at the time the proposal was done and is listed on the proposal as chief staff veterinarian. He has since quit working with the Foundation. "I told them 5,500 was more realistic. But Rachel made the decision. I said, you must be kidding. You think any doctor can do 40 surgeries a day? It takes a physical, mental, and financial toll."
Villaraigosa removed Brunson from the commission on October 14. Brunson said her time with all of this has caused her to conclude, "Stuckey hates everyone on the commission. He wonít help. And itís deliberate. No one can be that inept."
In the past, animal activist Charlotte Laws, Ph.D., member of the Greater Valley Glen Council and a longtime advocate for no-kill L.A. shelters, wrote that maybe the mayor could relocate Stuckey to another department. Now she says, "Based on the van, I withdraw that suggestion. We donít need any more of this in city government."