Sunday, July 5, 2009

Shelter oversight board -- what's the point?

I had some time off last week to attend the ASCMV oversight board meeting. I usually cannot attend the meeting because it is held each first Thursday of the month at 9 a.m. in the county commission chambers. This automatically excludes most of us that work full-time, but if you fall in this category, I can assure you that you are not missing much. The only useful information I get out of these meetings is the shelter statistics, which are not provided to the public any other time.

I attended the first meeting this board had some months ago. At that time, as with anything new, I was hopeful along with the other animal advocates. We felt the shelter would finally be getting the kind of oversight it needed instead of letting one person be completely in charge and not holding that person accountable.

What I learned this past Thursday is that these meetings are almost a complete waste of time for animal advocates to attend, much less provide any input. There are 3-minute intervals given for public input at the beginning and end of the meeting, but the comments are completely ignored. It's like talking to a wall made up of several people just glaring at you.

Unfortunately, there is no opportunity to acknowledge or address known issues, much less the detailed solutions per issue. Let's say you got up and made a comment about the lack of enrichment and socialization for both cats and dogs held long-term at the shelter. This is a serious issue because it directly affects many other areas of operations and chances of survival for animals--such as the high rate of upper respiratory infections in stressed cats and how poorly hyper dogs "show" to potential adopters. If you got up and made that comment and suggested some solutions, the board would not respond at all, much less ask the director of the animal shelter when and how the issue is going to be addressed.

What the meetings turn out being is a back-patting fest. The board members pat the shelter director on the back for a supposed "job well done" for facing the hardships of such a job. The board members pat each other on the back. Advocates are "allowed" to make public input, so they can check that box off their list as supposedly giving people an opportunity to speak up. However, if it leads to the nowhere it has always led, what is the point? You would do no better standing alone in your living room making comments to walls.

The following comment is from someone who works closely with the new ASCMV oversight board:

"The Board has a professional Shelter Manager, responsible for the Shelter. The Board is required to trust and support her in all the details of the operation. The responsibility of the Board is general oversight, keeping things on track, getting funding, and things like that. They have no independent Shelter expertise, and cannot, should not, and are even prohibited from trying to do her job for her, or manage her closely."

These are comments via e-mail from someone who holds a leading position on the oversight board to an animal advocate raising concerns:

"[The shelter director] will be giving a presentation on the report at our next meeting. I have no reason not to trust what she reports. I know that others do not feel this way, but I must admit that as time goes on I find myself trusting her more than others ...

Then he goes on to say this contradictory statement at the end of the e-mail message:

"My door, my phone, and my email are always open. Even my personal access is open to you. Who else allows you and most others this kind of access and willingness to listen, understand and RESPOND? I hope that matters to everyone out there. I fell like it doesn't."

If this person trusts what the director says and not a word out of anyone else's mouth, then how can he say that access to him is a true willingness to listen to anyone? The report referred to in this comment is the last review of our shelter done by a forensic veterinarian in April 2008. That report is the fouth in a long list of assessments our shelter has received in the last few years, all pointing to very troubling issues in its operations. Many of us have yet to see anyone address each issue in any detail.

For this oversight board to simply take the director's "word for it" is not acceptable. They should be at the shelter seeing if issues are being addressed with their own eyes. If they are not in place to provide close management and hold the director accountable, then who does play that role? Someone should. That person or group of persons owes it to our homeless animals to come up to speed on sheltering practices, legal issues, and modern approaches to animal sheltering. If advocates can take advantage of the wealth of information available on this topic, why can't this oversight board or whomever is going to hold the shelter's leadership accountable?

The fact is, whether hearsay or not, any issue that is brought up to our leaders should be investigated. Some of what is reported is completely unprofessional, and if the director has no one that holds them accountable, then our shelter is being managed by nothing short of a dictator that is empowered to operate as she/he sees fit and who gets the political cover to continue bad practices.

Again, as animal advocates, we are left with the same Twilight Zone that is our shelter. Frankly, I am tired of it and don't see how things will change under the current leadership.

Personally, I have decided to step more and more away from the shelter and the losing battle and waste of energy and time; my only advocacy or comments about it are addressd here in this blog. I usually write about progressive and modern approaches to issues our shelter is facing. The way I see it, it is up to the shelter's leadership to change the way they do business.

Moving ahead for our community, what is obvious to me is that one group of people needs to change gears and focus the bulk of our time and energy on building up alternatives, keeping animals from the shelter in the first place, and someday having a capital campaign to build a new shelter that can be run by a private non-profit that can model good sheltering standards of care and customer service, etc. It's clear that no matter how many shelter tours our leaders take, they are not getting it because they don't even understand what they are looking at. All they see is a facility overwhelmed with animals, the only words they listen to are the director they hired, and so they assume nothing else can be done. Maybe seeing modern sheltering will finally help them see the light because shelter operations can and should be done differently.

That's where I hope to put my focus in the future.