Fired City Official's Appeal in Limbo

Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles City Council balked Wednesday at reinstating the head of the Animal Services Department despite his argument that the mayor fired him without advance complaints about his performance.

Guerdon H. Stuckey needs 10 of the 15 council members to vote to give him his job back, something that appears unlikely.

The council took no action Wednesday because some members said they needed more time and information. But under the City Charter, Stuckey's appeal will remain on the council agenda for the next nine meetings, until Feb. 1. At that time, if there is no action to reinstate Stuckey, his appeal is deemed to be denied.

"We are disappointed that we didn't get the decision today," Stuckey said.

But, he added, he is hopeful the council will act favorably before the deadline.

If the firing stands, it would be one of the mayor's first significant victories before the council. But the hourlong hearing included some stinging criticism of the mayor by Stuckey and many of the 30 backers who attended.

Stuckey, who was a city administrator in Maryland, was hired by former Mayor James K. Hahn in November 2004, and was told by a deputy mayor at the time that he would keep his job as long as he performed, said Edward Lear, an attorney for Stuckey.

"Mr. Stuckey was wrongfully terminated by Mayor Villaraigosa," Lear told the council. "Mr. Stuckey did perform his job."

Stuckey and his attorney told the council he did a good job during his year as general manager of the department, bringing down the number of unclaimed animals put to death by 16%.

His firing, Stuckey said, "is not fair and it's not right. This firing is a personal slap in my face and a personal assault on my career."

The mayor, Stuckey charged, never set performance goals and never conveyed, before the firing, any dissatisfaction with Stuckey's work.

"The mayor never met with me during my tenure to discuss his vision for the department or any concerns he may have had," Stuckey said.

He alleged that when a top aide to the mayor told him he was fired, the aide said it was in response to vocal constituents, not because of his performance.

Stuckey said he did his job even though he was under the stress of threats and violent acts by animal rights activists, who allegedly threw a smoke bomb outside his apartment, threw a brick through one employee's window, sprayed graffiti at the home of another employee, and sent city officials Christmas cards showing Santa Claus holding a machine gun.

Because of the threats, he decided not to bring his wife to Los Angeles from the East Coast to live with him, he disclosed to the council, his voice choking with emotion.

"My first official day on the job began with a bomb threat. The harassment and intimidation by the activists was unrelenting," he said.

Although a few council members praised Stuckey's performance, even some sympathetic to Stuckey, including Councilwoman Janice Hahn, acknowledged that the City Charter gives the mayor power to remove general managers without cause.

"In the charter it states specifically that you serve at the will of the mayor," Councilman Tom LaBonge told Stuckey. "The mayor has a right to select his administrative team."

Hahn, the sister of the former mayor, apologized to Stuckey for the treatment he received from "terrorists."

"I don't think you deserve to be fired," Hahn said. "But unfortunately the system we have allows the mayor to bring in his own team."

Lear, Stuckey's attorney, said a lawsuit is possible if Stuckey is not reinstated. The former general manager has already demanded that, if his firing stands, he receive severance of about $155,000 -- an amount equal to 11 months' salary with medical and dental coverage and relocation expenses.

A legal claim or lawsuit could allow the council to approve a payment to Stuckey as a legal settlement. The council in 1997 approved a $375,000 severance package to settle a legal claim by Willie L. Williams as part of an agreement in which he resigned as police chief and dropped charges that the city had illegally leaked confidential information about him.

Lear noted the mayor fired Stuckey after animal rights activists picketed in front of the mayor's home and at his public appearances.

Some animal welfare volunteers, including Liz Cava of the Best Friends Animal Society, urged the council not to give in to "terrorists" who had pressed for Stuckey's firing.

"The real issue here is that the mayor's ear was poisoned by the activist-terrorist group," Cava said. "We ask that you listen to people in trenches and not the terrorist-activist groups."

David Diliberto, the department's director of field operations, also supported his former boss.

"Guerdon Stuckey did a good job. He was the hardest working general manager we ever had," Diliberto told the council.

However, a few people, including Mary Cummins of the group Animal Advocates, disagreed.

"Stuckey performed poorly," she said. "His appeal lists accomplishments that he had absolutely nothing to do with."

Villaraigosa hired Ed Boks, who had run New York City's animal control department, to replace Stuckey. He is the fourth general manager of the department in four years.

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