LA Councilman seeks changes to animal services amid criticism

By ERIC HE | City News Service

Seeking to address issues of underfunding and staffing shortages affecting animal shelters in Los Angeles, Councilman Paul Koretz released a report today on the state of Los Angeles Animal Services and filed a series of motions requesting funding and adjustments to the department.

The department has been the victim of a “chronic budget issue” and is in need of “much more personnel and a drastic increase of its funding,” according to Koretz, chair of the council’s Personnel, Audits and AnimalWelfare Committee.

The committee held two meetings over the summer bemoaning alleged animal neglect and insufficient staffing at the city facilities, and accused the department of dismissing multiple volunteers for blowing the whistle aboutvarious issues at the shelters in a Los Angeles Times article in July that widely exposed the problems. Department officials blamed insufficient staff levels for problems including dogs living in overcrowded conditions whilesometimes going weeks or months without being walked. Many callers into the meetings faulted Koretz for not doing more in his capacity as committee chair.

Koretz defended his role during a news briefing at City Hall on Friday, calling it a “false narrative” that he could “make all the decisions to fix every perceived problem.” He claimed that he has limited oversight over the department.

“I kept hearing and reading that I’m responsible for every complaint anybody has with Animal Services,” Koretz said. “Some of those allegations are motivated by genuine concern about genuine problems. Others, I suspect, arepolitically motivated.”

Koretz — who is termed out on the council this year but is running for city controller — has faced criticism from his opponent, Kenneth Mejia, over his handling of the scandal. Koretz has been chair of the council’s Personnel, Audits and Animal Welfare Committee since 2011 and lists an array of achievements related to animal welfare on his website.

“It’s taken Paul Koretz 11 years to do something at our animal shelters,” Mejia said on Twitter on Thursday. “Because of his lack of oversight, he has enabled a culture of whistleblower retaliation, financialmismanagement and zero accountability. Animals are suffering and can’t wait forperformative report-backs.”

Koretz claimed that by holding two public hearings in response to the complaints, he was taking an “unusual” action as chair of a council committee.

“You won’t find many such precedents for such an aggressive response in city council history,” Koretz said.

According to the 46-page report, the department has $27 million in funding for the current fiscal year, with 300 out of 343 budgeted positions filled. A “desirable” amount of funding would be nearly double that amount, but the report claims Animal Services is not a “sexy” department to fund and notes that a ballot measure may be needed to achieve adequate resources.

Koretz claimed that Mayor Eric Garcetti, who proposes the budget and nominates the department’s general manager, has not been “hands-on” with overseeing Animal Services.

“The mayor should commit to providing Animal Services with the funds required for it to do the job it’s expected to do,” the report states.

Harrison Wollman, a spokesperson for Garcetti, did not have an immediate response to Koretz’s comments. In August, Wollman said the mayor “recognizes that the current conditions at shelters are unacceptable, and has directed his office to increase staffing levels as quickly as possible.”

Garcetti re-appointed Annette Ramirez as interim general manager of Los Angeles Animal Services in August. She was confirmed by the council, though council members expressed a desire to install a permanent head of thedepartment.

Koretz filed a motion seeking $3 million in emergency funding to Animal Services for the current fiscal year, and also pledged to contribute $100,000 from his office to hire staff to improve the dog-walking program.

Koretz said the city only has enough General Fund money to operate four shelters, instead of the six it currently runs, along with a seventh operated under contract with a nonprofit group.

Koretz admitted that prior to last week, he hadn’t made a visit to a city shelter since before the pandemic began. He claimed he didn’t need to physically visit the shelters to address the problems in them because not toomany of them have changed.

The report mostly blamed staffing shortages for failures to walk dogs on a regular basis and clean kennels more frequently. Staffing issues have also contributed to approximately 300 unprocessed volunteer applications, according to the report. It called for the city council to relax a mandated 10-day quarantine for animal shelter staff exposed to COVID-19, recommending the period be cut to five days and a negative test.

The report generally concurred with the department’s “no kill” policy of achieving a 90% live-release rate, though it notes that shelters should not cut corners and be transparent in statistics.Koretz’s report documents friction between staff and volunteers, but claims it “long predates any recent controversy.”

Other motions filed by Koretz called for:

— reactivating the Animal Cruelty Task Force;

— a review of the training and qualifications for staff to serve as Animal Care Technicians;

— creating a centralized program to handle volunteer applications;

— promoting the city’s spay/neuter law;

— ensuring the Orange List, a list of animals in need of serious care that the department can’t provide, is given to organizations who could provide such care;

— a plan to ensure all dogs are regularly exercised;

— a plan to ensure the “best possible” treatment of cats, rabbits and other small animals;

— incorporating trainees in the city’s Targeted Local Hiring program into the shelter; and

— a plan to utilize the department’s joint Labor-Management Committee.

Koretz admitted that the controversy would “probably” hurt his reputation as an animal advocate.

“It’s ironic because there are people out there who think I’m an anti-animal guy, when in fact, throughout my 34-year career, I’ve always been criticized for caring more about animals than people,” Koretz said.

The councilmember believed he took a chance politically on attempting to provide reforms to Animal Services after the recent controversy. But he claimed that he can “only make suggestions.”

“If the department doesn’t follow through on them, we’re limited,” Koretz said.

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