Monday, April 06, 2009

Anatomy of a Failure

Animal control in San Angelo is operating in failure mode. We have had 2 high profile puppy mill cases in the last 4 years, which took way to long to be resolved (if they are.) That is not even the tip of the iceberg.

Our best estimates show that cats and dogs outnumber humans in San Angelo. With approximately 58,000 dogs and 68,000 cats, there are about 126,000 animals to maybe 88,000 people here. Approximately 37,000 of these animals have owners. That means less than a third of these animals have a home. A total of 8,254 of these animals are licensed. Thats about 6.6% of the total or 22% of those with owners and homes. We adopt out about 1,200 animals from the shelter, or about 1% of the total animal population. Given the average life of a pet, it is likely that most of the licensed pets in this town were adopted. We euthanize over 9,000 animals a year, which is more than the number of animals licensed and about 7.2% of the animals in town. These numbers show a system that doesn't work.

There are a number of reasons that the system isn't working. There is a built in personnel shortage. The sources I have found recommend an average 1 animal control officer per 10,000 population which means we need 9 officers, while we only are authorized 5 and normally only have 3 or 4, and the turn over is very high. It's a tough, thankless job.

Lack of personnel is not the only, or probably the biggest, problem. There are several systemic problems that hurt our animal welfare and control efforts. At the top of the list has to be the Animal services board.

The Animal Services Board is supposed to be the main provider of advice to the city on animal control and welfare issues. The board has no authority to act for the city, but they are tasked with making recommendations to the City Council on City Policy and the Code of Ordinances. They are tasked to hold evidentiary hearings and appoint special committees as needed. For the most part they have been missing in action.

Way too many meetings in the past couple of years have been canceled because of a lack of a quorum. They are having a hard time getting 4 out of 7 members to attend scheduled meetings. When a meeting is canceled due to lack of quorum, they have not been calling a special meeting within 7 days as is required by city ordinance (section 2.3804.) They just let it slide. Of all the meetings scheduled last year, only 4 of them had a quorum show up. I have been told that some of the less than quorum gatherings did discuss some issues, but without a quorum no official business or discussion can happen. A member can be removed from the board for too many unexcused absences, but they have to miss 2/3rds of the meetings for this to happen. This means there is effectively no requirement to even show up. I know it's hard to get people to volunteer for these boards, but the goal here is more than just having a name on the board. If these volunteers miss more than a couple meetings without a good excuse, what are they doing that benefits the community?

The structure of the board is a another problem. There appears to be a conflict between what is in the code of ordinances and what is in the boards bylaws. The ordinance calls for 9 members with 2 of them staff members (health director and animal services director.) It says they are full members. The bylaws says they are not voting members. This is a problem. They need to bring the ordinances into sync with the bylaws. I know that both of them are approved by the City Council, but if you want to get real picky ordinances trump bylaws.

These problems have led to more problems. The last special committee created for animal issues further illustrates these problems. Council sent the last attempt to get an animal limit back to the board with the instructions to form a committee to create a new ordinances. Council asked some of the people who had spoken before it to get with the animal services board and possibly serve on the special committee. The committee that was formed suffered from a number of defects. First, it was not representative of the city either geographically or by those that have an interest in animal issues. There were 2 animal rescuers and a member of the humane society while the rest of the members were residents of the neighborhood where the last puppy mill was located. There were no breeders, either amateur or professional were on the committee. There were no representatives from poor or minority sections of town. Trainers and providers of professional animal services were also not involved.

During the formation of this committee, no effort was made to balance this committee and make it representative of the city as a whole. Contrary to standard city practice, no information sheets were filled out or collected. I can't find that the committee was even officially voted on by the Animal Services Board. The board in September of 2008 just seemed to accept everyone that showed up as a member of the committee and told them to come back when they were done. They just kind of left it to fend for itself until its next meeting. Members seemed to be added to the committee even after it was formed. One of the committee members seems to have appointed himself as chairman and railroaded through his personal agenda. In February 2009 (six months later) when the next meeting was held, the board voted to forward the output of the committee to the city council with minor changes after calling around for 20 minutes to finally get someone to show up so they could have a quorum. The resulting proposals had significant problems, mostly with basics like the definition of a breeder and the definition of enclosure and they narrowly passed the council after significant changes and much heated debate. The resulting ordinances still have problems that will need to be addressed in the future. These problems shouldn't take long to show up in higher rates of euthanizations and an even worse level of licensing of animals.

The Animal Services Board needs some significant changes. The Health Director or the Animal Services Director (probably not both) should be there as an ex-officio member, staff advisors, and the point of contact between the city and the board. This change needs to make it into the ordinances.

All boards should required to pass their proposals by a majority of the membership, not the quorum. We already require this of some boards and commission such as the SADC. It needs to be expanded to all boards and committees.

Board members should only be allowed 2 unexcused absences a year. If they can't make it most of the time they are not really that committed and need to be replaced. If you want the prestige of being on a board, you have to accept the responsibility of at least showing up.

There need to be guidelines for the formation of special committees. They must be balanced as much as feasible geographically and among the major stakeholders in that particular area. The presence of trainers and legitimate breeders on the committee would have prevented many problems. There also need to be guidelines on the election of a chairman and other officers as needed. An official policy on attendance and voting should be part of these guidelines. A quick review of some other city boards and committees show that there are more of these type of problems out there. They just haven't made the news yet.

There are major problems in the animal control and animal welfare area. I am hopeful that they will be properly addressed in the near future. We have a new chairman of the Animal Services Board, and I am hopeful that she will get things moving in the right direction.

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