Bad Dogcatcher

Photo by Keith MaySpurred by citizen complaints and upset by continuing controversy at the county animal shelter, county CEO Jan Mittermeier appears to have taken the first steps toward a major reform of the county's troubled Animal Control department, sending two of her top employees to oversee the agency.

Following a May 14 Weekly article detailing long-standing problems at the animal shelter, officials promised sweeping changes. But nothing changed; instead, controversy continued. There were charges that some unwanted pets were still being euthanized in cruel and unusual ways, the place looked like hell, and the workers were surly and demoralized. And there were new allegations, chiefly that money earmarked for spaying and neutering animals was instead being used to subsidize the salaries of administrators.

But this latest move toward reform appears more serious, if only because it originates in Mittermeier's office and strips current officials of their responsibility for Animal Control. The first step: moving Animal Control out of the byzantine Health Care Agency (HCA), the giant organization that oversees several county programs. In the shuffle, supervision of Animal Control has been taken away from interim public-health director Len Foster and given to a newly created department of health-care regulatory services, which will also include environmental-health programs.

The new department is headed by Mike Spurgeon, who was sent to HCA several weeks ago from his position in the CEO's office to bring a fresh perspective to Animal Control's problems and (it's hoped) shake up its moribund administration. For the moment, Spurgeon will report to interim HCA director Julie Polson, but there's talk of allowing Spurgeon to report directly to the CEO.

It's unclear how effective the changes will be. Before arriving in the CEO's office, Spurgeon served as chief of staff to former Supervisor William Steiner, and Steiner had plenty of problems of his own—including the world-famous county bankruptcy and his post-bankruptcy habit of collecting contributions for a political campaign he had already announced wouldn't happen. Nor is it clear that an organizational shake-up will necessarily do anything more than generate headlines: the last high-profile shake-up of a county bureaucracy occurred in 1997 when county officials beheaded the housing program following a scandal there; two years later, the county's housing agency is still a mess (see Nick Schou's "Thanks for Nothing," page 12).

The shake-up could, however, put an end to the controversial process of finding a new Animal Control director. When longtime chief Judy Maitlen resigned in March, she was succeeded as interim director by her hand-picked assistant, Mark McDorman, who seemed to have the inside track on the permanent $79,000-per-year job. That angered shelter critics and animal-rights activists who see McDorman as part of the management team that ignored shelter problems for years. The process of selecting a permanent director began but quickly ran into problems—one panel member was removed for a conflict of interest and another quit—and then stalled completely.

Now Mittermeier's office is involved in this process as well, arranging the appointment of Michael Ruane, a top Mittermeier assistant, to the panel that will select a director. (If, that is, a permanent director is named. One scenario under consideration would return McDorman to his former job as chief of field operations and let Animal Control operate without a director.)

The HCA reorganization was confirmed for the Weekly by public information officer Karen Dorame. Spurgeon could not be reached for comments on initial steps he might take to turn Animal Control around.

Critics aren't waiting for Mittermeier. Activists representing several groups—including the Orange County Coalition for Pet Population Control and Actors and Others for Animals—plan to meet next week to discuss an action plan for shelter reform that could be used to enlist support from dozens of other animal-rights groups.

Meanwhile, the shelter itself still looks seedy. Some dog cages still lack the cards that tell potential adopters basic information about the pets. Many animals are still covered with ticks. There are still no employees asking visitors if they need help.

"More of the same," said one staffer. Morale "sucks," she said, in part because of a perception among employees that promotion within the agency depends on being one of McDorman's cronies. Then there's the fact that while Animal Control has 115 employees and a budget of $6.5 million, officers in the field are forced to cover such large areas that calls from citizens about strays are often backed up for eight or nine hours.

The animals suffer along with the humans. To provide more space for head veterinarian Dr. Richard Evans, cats who are quarantined or awaiting treatment have been moved from air-conditioned inside quarters to outside cages only partially shaded from the heat by haphazardly spread tarps.

"It's a real shantytown for cats," the staffer said.


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