Sacramento County animal shelter chief wins wrongful termination appeal

08/30/2012 12:00 AM

08/31/2012 12:12 PM

Carl Simpson had built a reputation for never backing down from a challenge.

So when Sacramento County officials asked the chief code enforcement officer to do double duty as interim manager of the county's new but troubled animal shelter, he jumped at the opportunity.

That was in May 2010.

Within six months, Simpson found himself facing charges that he sexually harassed female shelter employees, ignored rules about releasing animals deemed to be vicious, wrongly gave away items intended to be sold at auction and misused a county vehicle.

In March 2011, after more than 15 years in public service in San Jose and Sacramento, Simpson was fired.

He fought back, charging that he was the victim of a smear campaign. He filed an appeal with the county Civil Service Commission and a civil lawsuit charging, among other things, racial bias. The suit asks for $1.5 million in damages.

"The allegations just killed me," Simpson, 49, said in an interview this week. "I was floored, because I really felt things were beginning to gel at the shelter."

After searching for work for more than a year without success, Simpson got good news Friday. The nonpartisan civil service panel, which oversees hiring and firing of county employees, granted his appeal, ruling that he never should have been disciplined, much less fired.

"I've got to go back and show people who I really am," he said. "The best thing I can do is to march forward."

The county, which during four days of hearings last month presented testimony from various witnesses including Assistant County Executive Nav Gill, declined to comment on the case through a spokeswoman, Chris Andis.

Civil service proceedings are closed to the public. But Simpson's lawyer, Jill Telfer, said the panel agreed with a finding by an administrative law judge that the county "failed to provide reliable evidence showing that good cause existed" to fire Simpson.

Simpson's victory, Telfer said, is unusual.

"It is extremely difficult for an employee in this situation to get his or her job back," she said.

Simpson expects to return to work within a couple of weeks, but it is unlikely that he will go back to running the shelter, he said. Last week's ruling means only that he is entitled to his former job title, code enforcement chief, and his $115,000 salary.

County administrators are "working through our options" concerning Simpson's job arrangements, said Andis.

Meanwhile, his civil suit, which claims retaliation, race discrimination and defamation, will move forward, Telfer said.

Simpson, who said he was the only senior black executive in the county when he was fired, told The Bee he saw white employees accused of "far worse allegations than me" remain in their jobs.

The trouble at the fledgling shelter happened, he said, after officials asked him to help turn it around amid major staffing and budget cuts.

Within weeks of Simpson taking the job, he said, the county cut the shelter's budget by $500,000 and laid off six employees from an already decimated staff. It was a daily challenge to operate the facility, he said. "I had to pray that volunteers would come through the door to make sure we got open. My wife and kids would come in with me on weekends and help clean cages."

But it was largely a losing battle, he said, with huge numbers of animals being put to death because of illness and overcrowding.

Simpson said he brought an open leadership style, encouraging rescue groups to come in, taking puppies to county departments to encourage adoptions, and pumping up fundraising. He said some employees objected to his style and tactics, which led to a campaign to get him fired. He also sought to create a congenial atmosphere with employees that some may have interpreted as too cozy, he said.

In October 2010, according to the civil service commission hearing officer's proposed decision, county administrative officer Tara Diller and senior animal control officer Libby Simmons brought sexual harassment complaints against Simpson. They alleged, among other things, that Simpson sent inappropriate emails, put his arm around Simmons and tried to "hit on" Diller.

An outside investigator concluded that Simpson "engaged in some verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature," including email exchanges. But she found Simpson's actions did not constitute sexual harassment.

That probe led to another one when Diller, Simmons and others questioned Simpson's management of the shelter.

Human services manager Katie Beland found that Simpson misappropriated donations to the shelter by offering them to an employee, allowed a vicious dog to be released to rescue, wrongly set aside a dog for a county employee, and used a county vehicle to remove personal property from the shelter.

But the administrative law judge who reviewed the evidence disagreed, concluding that the county failed to prove its case "with respect to any of the charges." The civil service commission panel concurred.

Simpson said he is ready to put the toxic matter behind him.

"I'm going to go to work and hit the ground running," he said. "Maybe I can win over people who had doubts about me. Maybe they'll think, 'This is a guy who stands up for what he believes in. He walks the walk.' "

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