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Nature Center Chief’s Salary Frozen 6 Months : Discipline: The head of the Chula Vista wildlife refuge also receives a written reprimand for shooting two mourning doves and seven rabbits.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The director of the Chula Vista Nature Interpretive Center was given a written reprimand and his salary was frozen for six months by the city Thursday as punishment for shooting two mourning doves and seven rabbits over the last three years at the nature conservancy.

Dr. Stephen Neudecker might also be fined $650 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for shooting the doves, according to Chula Vista City Manager John Goss.

The actions against Neudecker were taken after a two-week city investigation into allegations, made by two former nature center employees, that Neudecker had shot animals on the center’s grounds and in the surrounding wildlife refuge.

The investigation by the Fish and Wildlife Service is almost complete, but agents there could neither confirm nor deny whether a fine would be imposed.

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“He obviously violated our municipal code in terms of discharging a firearm in city limits,” Goss said. “The actions may have been well-motivated, but they were inconsistent with his mission.

“His error in judgment was not in the removing of birds and rabbits on the center, but in how he accomplished that removal. His poor judgment has brought embarrassment and negative publicity to the Nature Interpretive Center, the Bayfront Conservancy Trust and the city,” Goss said.

The salary freeze includes all merit and cost-of-living raises, which could total “thousands of dollars,” Goss said. Neudecker was due for a raise in July.

The city found that Neudecker had killed two mourning doves and seven rabbits during his three-year tenure at the center, but did not find evidence to support allegations that Neudecker shot at animals from his office window or outside the center’s boundaries in the Sweetwater Marsh Wildlife Refuge. Neudecker previously said he shot the doves, which had flown into the gallery, because they were damaging exhibits and he had no other means to remove them. He has also said that he shot the rabbits to control overpopulation and to feed the center’s three captive birds.

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According to Goss, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has found Neudecker in violation of three federal statutes, including two counts of shooting mourning doves, which is prohibited by the Migratory Bird Treaty, and one count of possession of a BB gun in a national refuge.

Neudecker will be fined a total of $650 for those violations, said Goss, who said he was informed verbally by the Fish and Wildlife Service but has not received written confirmation of the fines.

Neudecker felt vindicated by the results of the investigations, saying, “As I contended all along, only 5% of the allegations were shown to be true.”

“I did what I thought I had to do,” Neudecker said Thursday. “My actions were not ill-founded nor capricious. I made a mistake and accepted it.”

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Neudecker said the punishment was appropriate, and that he has “been dealt with fairly by the city and the federal investigators.”

Neudecker added that he felt he had been “crucified by the media,” who, he said, blew the situation out of proportion.

Goss, in considering what actions to take, consulted with the Bayfront Conservancy Trust for four hours last week in closed session.

Greg Cox, chairman of the trust’s board, said he felt Goss’ actions were appropriate and reflected the consensus of the board that some action beyond a written reprimand and short of termination was necessary.

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“Dr. Neudecker’s greatest error was not working in concert with the federal wildlife agency and the state wildlife agency,” Cox said. “These were isolated incidences. If something was occurring on a regular basis, perhaps we would have considered something else.”

“It’s my assessment that the eight members of the board and the volunteers at the center support (Neudecker’s) efforts,” Goss said. “I’ve received letters from volunteers who are very supportive of him. Some don’t like what he did, but they certainly support his overall performance at the center, and they made it very clear to me that they would be upset if he left.

“He immediately admitted the error in judgment, he apologized publicly; in three years with the city this is his first major error in judgment, and he has the support of the (Bayfront Conservancy Trust) and volunteers at this time, even with those actions,” Goss said.

In the reprimand, Goss lists seven mandates for Neudecker, including the development of an operations manual to formalize all procedures at the center, the banning of all firearms from the center and attendance at management and supervisory workshops.

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The list also states that, “if any future predators are found on the grounds of the Nature Interpretive Center . . . any participation you may have with their removal should only be under the direction of and cooperation with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or California Fish and Game as appropriate.”

Goss said operations at the center have not been hurt by the situation.

“We feel that the investigation is over,” said Maureen Witkowski, volunteer coordinator at the center. “It’s time to get back to the business of having a nature center, and one of the best nature centers in the country. We’re very happy that it’s come to a close, and let’s go on from there.”


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