Muzzle Puzzle

Why is Animal Control displaying a bunker mentality?

Photo by Keith MayGovernment moves in strange ways, when it moves at all. Sometimes it makes you laugh; sometimes it makes you cry. But most often it just makes you shake your head in amazement at the stupidity. Latest case in point: how Orange County Animal Control is blowing its best chance in years to gain goodwill, change its fortress mentality and disarm the critics of its troubled animal shelter.

In a highly critical cover story ("Pet Hell," May 14), the Weekly brought together many years' worth of complaints and horror stories about the shelter and its less-than-sterling management. While denying that the story had any merit, shelter officials immediately said they would make the sweeping changes recommended in the story: the shelter's hours of operation, management style, marketing techniques and use of volunteers would be improved, and a highly controversial and often horrific method of euthanizing cats would be banned.

The changes were announced by Animal Control's acting director, Mark McDorman, at the May meeting of the department's advisory board. The few dozen members of the public in attendance, many of whom were longtime critics, received the news with cautious enthusiasm and expressed a willingness to help. At this point, Animal Control seemed poised for a great leap forward—at least in public relations. The next logical step seemed to be to hold a press conference or stage some other sort of event to announce that a new era had arrived, that great things were coming.

Instead, officials have done exactly the opposite. No press conference, no event, no announcement of any kind. Indeed, reporters who did try to get the story to the public were rebuffed. The day following the advisory-board meeting, reporters for the Orange County News Channel—which had done a story last year about the controversial cat-euthanization method the Animal Shelter employs—began working on a story about the changes. Animal activists were lined up to comment on their hopes that things might finally be changing. Animal Control officials were contacted. Their response: no response. The story died.

"It's wonderful to hear that the shelter is finally making the improvements that the public has been calling for," said Maria Dales, an animal activist and former chairwoman of the Animal Control Advisory Board. "A public press conference, or at the very least a timely press release detailing all the wonderful changes and upgrades, would have gone a long way to reverse the wave of negative PR that they're experiencing. At this point, they need to take the high ground, shake out the cobwebs, admit that it's time for some changes to occur, and give the public some very specific call to action."

Unfortunately, the failure to make any sort of public announcement was only the first fiasco.

In the midst of everything else, a search has also been under way for a new director of Animal Control to succeed Judy Maitlen, who retired in March. She was replaced as acting director by McDorman, her hand-picked assistant, and all indications have been that he has the inside track to winning the $79,000-per-year position permanently. This has worried animal activists because as Maitlen's No. 2 for seven years, McDorman seems so closely tied to the old, discredited way of doing things.

Was the fix in? Activists decided that one way to find out was to see who will be on the five-person oral-review panel tentatively set to question finalists for the director's job on June 18. They first approached Len Foster, the interim director of Public Health and the man who oversees the Animal Control director. Foster told them he wouldn't release the names. Calls were made to other county officials without success.

Then Sherry Meddick stepped into the fray. Meddick, an animal lover and an environmentalist known to county officials for her years of involvement in development issues, put together a formal request for the release of the information under the state Public Records Act and personally delivered it to the county supervisors during their June 8 meeting. The supervisors declined to take any action since the item wasn't on the agenda.

However, as luck would have it, the supervisors had been planning to discuss a proposed anti-news-leak ordinance that day, and in the audience was one of the state's top First Amendment lawyers, Terry Franke. At the end of the meeting, Meddick and several reporters clustered around Franke and asked what he thought about release of the names of the Animal Control panelists. He said the names were clearly public record. Meddick and the reporters then marched upstairs to deliver this nugget to Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who has shown some sympathy on First Amendment issues. Spitzer has also had an interest in Animal Control issues for some time and apparently expects some changes as well. "I recognize there have been problems in our Animal Control Department, and Ihave raised these issues with the new director of the Health Care Agency and the [county] CEO," he said. "Ilook forward to—and quite frankly expect—an increased emphasis on this department. We all have the responsibility to treat our animals humanely and with dignity."

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