EX-ANIMAL CHIEF PLEADS FOR JOB COUNCIL COULD OVERRIDE MAYOR'S FIRING WITH 10 VOTES.
In the first test of mayoral power over department heads, ousted Animal Services chief Guerdon Stuckey appealed to the City Council on Wednesday to return him to the post, describing a job in which he fought against physical threats to do his best for Los Angeles.
The council, which has until Feb. 1 to take action, heard for more than an hour from Stuckey and his attorney on the request to overturn Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's decision last month to fire him.
It would take 10 votes from the 15-member council to overrule the decision by the mayor, who under the 1999 voter-approved City Charter is given broad authority to hire and fire department heads who no longer have civil-service protection.
``I am not sure there is much that can be done,'' Councilman Bernard Parks told Stuckey, noting that his own contract as police chief was not renewed under former Mayor James Hahn.
But Stuckey and his attorney, Edward Lear, argued that Hahn's aides had offered assurances of job security when the post was offered to Stuckey in November 2004.
In his presentation to the council, Lear also cited reductions in the number of animals killed each year as well as other efforts to show that Stuckey had performed his job.
Lear quoted former Deputy Mayor Doane Liu as saying Stuckey would not have to worry about being fired as long as he performed well.
But the City Attorney's Office told the council that under the City Charter, all department heads serve ``at will'' and are subject to replacement by a mayor at any time.
``It's like bringing a new coach in,'' Councilman Tom LaBonge said. ``You might not like him, but he has the right to bring in the team he wants.''
Stuckey and his attorney did not contest the charter, but said he had done his job well, had never met directly with Villaraigosa and had never been instructed what was expected of him.
After Villaraigosa took office in July, Stuckey said he sent the mayor a report outlining his accomplishments and goals. Stuckey said he was never told to do anything differently.
Villaraigosa has said that, both after becoming mayor and while he was still a City Council member and mayoral candidate, he let Stuckey know that he was dissatisfied with his performance.
During last year's mayoral campaign, Villaraigosa had said he would remove Stuckey for the city's failure to reduce the number of animals euthanized each year.
After taking office, however, he said he would give Stuckey time to prove himself. That prompted demonstrations against Villaraigosa and a stepped-up effort against Stuckey by animal-rights extremists.
In mid-December, the mayor announced he was firing Stuckey and hiring Ed Boks, the outgoing head of New York City Animal Care and Control, as interim manager, effective Jan. 3.
Stuckey has appealed for reinstatement and has threatened to file a wrongful-termination lawsuit against the city. There have been reports he is seeking severance pay equal to 11 months of his $154,000 annual salary.
Villaraigosa, who has denied bowing to pressure from animal-rights extremists, said Wednesday he would have no comment on the council proceedings.
``It is in the council's hands,'' spokesman Joe Romallo said. ``The mayor took the action he thought was appropriate and has taken steps to bring in leadership he believes will do the job he wants.''
In his appearance before the council, Stuckey said he viewed his dismissal as a personal insult that would ruin his reputation across the country. Stuckey is the fourth Animal Services general manager to work for the city in as many years.
Stuckey acknowledged he had been warned about the risks in the job from the Los Angeles Police Department and that the threats against him continued until the day he was fired.
``My first day on the job, there was a bomb threat,'' Stuckey told council members. ``My wife, a native Angeleno, was afraid to move here. I can't tell you the emotional stress that it takes when you have a job and can't be with the most important person in your life.''
But, he said, ``I stayed on because I wanted to do the job to help turn this department around.''
About 15 employees of the department - and more than a dozen other supporters - showed up Wednesday to testify on his behalf.
Stuckey also received supportive words from council members, who said he had done his job under difficult circumstances.
``I think you have done an extraordinary job in my dealings with you,'' said Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who has worked with Stuckey on issues ranging from wild dogs to trying to capture an alligator that was let loose in Machado Lake.
Hahn also said she felt she should apologize to Stuckey for working conditions that included threats from various groups and a smoke bomb in his downtown apartment.
Councilwoman Jan Perry voiced similar sentiments, adding she is concerned about setting a precedent if the city removes department heads because of opposition from specific groups.
Perry said she also felt she was being targeted by animal-rights extremists, who have sent material to her home and listed her on a Web site.
``No one should be faced with physical threats because of the job they have,'' Hahn said.
Rick Orlov, (213) 978-0390