Santa Barbara County 1998-99 Grand Jury Report

Animal Health and Regulation

Released March 23, 1999

 

INTRODUCTION

In response to a complaint regarding staffing and volunteer issues, the Grand Jury investigated the Animal Health and Regulation Division (AH&R) of the Environmental Health Services, which is part of the Department of Health Care Services.

OBJECTIVE

The objective of the investigation was to determine if the complaint received was justified, to determine the cause of the problems and to recommend ways to alleviate them.

APPROACH

Members of the Grand Jury visited the three animal shelters—at Santa Barbara, Lompoc, and Santa Maria. Various individuals at the sites were interviewed, as were members of the department’s management and numerous shelter volunteers.

As part of the investigation the Grand Jury studied the departmental manual, the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for the Dog Adoption Welfare Group (DAWG) volunteer group, the Board of Supervisors resolution regarding the Shelter Animal Volunteer Effort (SAVE) organization, and the mission statement for the Companion Animal Placement Assistance (CAPA) volunteer group. The Jury reviewed various correspondence addressing shelter issues, some specifically related to volunteer groups.

OBSERVATIONS

Volunteers work alongside staff at all shelters and outnumber staff at the Santa Barbara shelter. Volunteers perform adoptions, off-site boarding (foster care) and feeding, exercising and grooming of animals. They also open and close shelters. They have keys to the sites and perform some of their duties outside of normal staff working hours when staff members are not present. Volunteers are consulted by staff for many operational decisions (e.g., whether an animal meets adoptability criteria or should be euthanized or whether a potential adopter is suitable for a specific animal). Disagreements are inevitable because of this high degree of overlapping functions of people who have varying degrees of passion regarding animals.

Disagreements between staff and volunteers escalate to the site supervisor and lead volunteer and eventually must be resolved by the Director of AH&R. The Director is directly pressured by volunteers to acquiesce to their demands. Failure to do so has resulted in volunteers’ putting on their citizen hats and bringing their positions directly to members of the County Board of Supervisors, who historically have ruled in favor of the constituent. Such decisions are relayed back to the Director of AH&R through his superiors. These volunteer actions and Board responses cause the Director and his staff to feel unfairly vulnerable to volunteer pressure, thus causing serious staff morale problems.

The Grand Jury reviewed the departmental manual’s guidance concerning staff regulation of volunteers. The manual is comprised of 68 sections dealing with all aspects of AH&R operations and personnel policy but no sections dealing with staff responsibility toward volunteers or rules and guidelines for volunteer functions.

The manual provides little guidance about the role of volunteers in adoptions. While the manual prescribes the lottery system to use when more than one party wishes to adopt an animal, it does not address which adoption tasks volunteers may perform on their own and which require staff oversight. It also fails to address volunteer training.

Foster care is a significant operation within AH&R. A total of 853 animals were fostered from the three shelters during fiscal year 1997-98. Many of these animals are fostered out to volunteers. The manual does not adequately cover the topic of foster care by volunteers, nor does it address the County’s liability. It does not prescribe animal ownership or liability, maximum number of animals that can be held by one person, animal holding time limits, responsibilities for medical care, spaying, or neutering, county staff responsibilities regarding fostered animals, or how the adoption process should be carried out for fostered animals.

The Director has had to re-key shelter buildings to ensure that volunteers do not have access to restricted areas. In spite of his efforts, volunteers continue to have unauthorized keys in their possession. DAWG volunteers gain access to shelters so that they can groom and exercise dogs at times convenient to them, whether or not County staff are present. The manual does not prescribe a policy regarding keys or shelter hours for volunteers. Having volunteers on shelter premises without staff to supervise creates additional opportunities for potential County liability.

The Director is responsible for revising or updating the departmental manual. Major portions of the manual were written in 1989, and the last revision is dated November 1993. The manual does not reflect the current extensive use of volunteers to support shelter operations.

Since there are no policies or procedures defining the scope of volunteer activities, volunteers at the Santa Barbara and Santa Maria shelters wrote their own regulations and had them approved by the County Board of Supervisors. These documents go far beyond specifying rights and obligations of volunteer groups and have the force of legal contracts with the County. They provide guidelines for AH&R operations (e.g., euthanasia, adoptions, animal transfers among shelters, kennel management, and foster care). The documents are shelter-specific and not equally extensive or detailed. The Santa Barbara shelter has an MOU, the Santa Maria shelter has a board resolution and the Lompoc shelter has no document. De facto consistency of volunteer-determined operations among the shelters has been obtained by using precedents established at other sites. For example, volunteers at one shelter, upon learning what is allowed at another shelter, will pressure the site supervisor to permit that activity at their shelter. This lack of management control further contributes to staff demoralization.

The Grand Jury observed that actions of the Director, or lack thereof, contribute to staff morale problems. First, the departmental manual specifies that countywide staff meetings are to be held monthly "to provide staff with information relevant to county-wide Animal Health and Regulation." The manual specifically provides detailed instructions for implementing this meeting. Such meetings are not held on a regular basis. Second, a staff member lodged a complaint with the Civil Service Commission (CSC) claiming that the Director had interfered with the preparation of employee performance reviews. The staff member had resisted the interference, and the Director took retaliatory action. The CSC heard the complaint and ruled in favor of the complainant.

A number of current and former AH&R staff members provided detailed complaints about the DAWG volunteer group at the Santa Barbara Shelter. Those complainants who were former staff members had all resigned because of harassment from the DAWG volunteer group. The complaints consistently cited numerous inappropriate activities by DAWG volunteers:

It is well known that emotional factors assume disproportionate influence in the public's relationship with domestic animals, particularly in this setting. No matter what county policy or law requires, it appears that volunteer groups apparently feel no obligation to comply with policies designed to safeguard the public and consistently interfere with the processes of administering the department. These emotional responses to policy make it difficult for County staff to carry out their required duties.

One of the most difficult issues to resolve, the Jury found, involves the acceptance by the County of financial assistance from volunteers. Currently, necessary capital improvements totaling $449,000 have been identified for the three shelters ($50,000 in Santa Maria, $233,000 in Lompoc and $166,000 in Santa Barbara). However, the 1998–99 County budget only provides funding of $50,000 for the animal shelter renovation in Santa Maria, a major shortfall of nearly $400,000. (The other two shelters have no money allocated.) Well-intentioned volunteer groups have raised $291,000 to provide much-needed improvements and address unmet funding needs created by this shortfall. Work, using these funds, has already begun at the Santa Barbara shelter.

Acceptance of private contributions to pay for the conduct of County business encourages de facto control of shelter operations by private groups. It is difficult for the Board of Supervisors to maintain objectivity under such circumstances. A partnership, either formal or informal, arises out of the acceptance of funds and often creates a bias in favor of those constituents. This bias—or perceived bias—creates an awkward work environment for county staff, as indicated by the large number of resignations attributed to volunteer harassment.

FINDINGS AND
RECOMMENDATIONS

Finding #1:

There is considerable discord between AH&R staff and volunteers. Incomplete and outdated policy and procedure manuals and weak AH&R management contribute to the discord.

Recommendation #1:

The AH&R Director should immediately revise the departmental manual to provide guidance for all personnel, including both paid staff and volunteers, working at all sites. The revision should include a section on foster care of animals, a revised section on adoptions, a section on staff responsibilities toward volunteers, and a section of rules for all volunteers working at a shelter. Volunteer input to this manual should be solicited—not negotiated through attorneys.

Finding #2:

Inconsistent agreements among volunteer organizations and overzealous volunteers undermine staff relationships with volunteers.

Recommendation #2:

The Board of Supervisors should rescind its existing agreements with volunteers and reestablish the authority of the AH&R policies and procedures. If formal agreements with volunteer groups are needed, they should be restricted to volunteer rights and obligations and should not include details of shelter operations. Operational details should be in the departmental manual.

Finding #3:

(a) The volunteer organization DAWG exerts an inappropriate level of influence on the inner workings of the AH&R Department through its individual and collective access to the Board of Supervisors.

(b) The conduct of DAWG volunteers has resulted in staff resignations and has created poor morale and an adversarial environment within the department.

Recommendation #3:

(a) The Director and staff of AH&R should control routine shelter operations with support from management and the Board of Supervisors.

(b) The Board of Supervisors should recognize that its responsiveness to volunteers may well circumvent policy and place staff in an untenable position.

Finding #4:

(a) Mediation of conflicts is an important skill for the Director of AH&R. However, he is not mediating conflicts in a satisfactory manner, in part because of pressure from the Board of Supervisors to placate volunteers.

(b) Staff feels hostage to volunteers because of volunteer access to the Board of Supervisors.

Recommendation #4:

(a) The Director of Health Care Services should update the position description for the AH&R Director to emphasize the duty of "conflict mediator between volunteers and staff."

(b) The Director of AH&R, as well as all levels of management above, including the Board of Supervisors, should create a supportive environment for AH&R staff.

Finding #5:

The Board of Supervisors creates public/private partnerships by accepting contributions, either cash or in-kind services, for County activities.

Recommendation #5:

The Board of Supervisors should accept responsibility for ensuring that public/private partnerships do not have a negative impact on County activities by developing and enforcing policies and procedures for these partnerships.

AFFECTED AGENCIES

Board of Supervisors

Findings 2, 3(a), 3(b), 4(a), 4(b), 5

Recommendations 2, 3(a), 3(b), 4(b), 5

Director of Health Care Services

Findings 1, 3(a), 3(b), 4(a)

Recommendations 1, 3(a), 4(a), 4(b)