BROOKSVILLE — A visitor looking for a furry new friend will find it's business as usual at the SPCA of Hernando County.
On Thursday, some 130 cats lounged, pawed and purred at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals shelter on Grant Street, west of Brooksville. In kennels out back, eight dogs waited for new homes. A black and white chihuahua mix named Cliff barked loudly while a boxer mix named Lady let her plaintive eyes speak for her.
But behind the scenes, a legal drama is playing out as two factions fight for control of the nonprofit, no-kill facility.
On one side is the sitting board of directors, who say they have made great strides to improve the shelter since taking control last year. On the other is a group whose members say they are the rightfully elected board.
A judge could ultimately resolve the dispute. Last fall, the sitting board of directors filed a civil complaint asking the court to decide which party has the legal right to run the shelter.
"If the goal is to move the SPCA forward and take care of the animals, this has to have a resolution, and that's what the complaint is asking for," said Stephanie Chambers, an attorney with the Hogan Law Firm, which is representing the sitting board.
The dispute first made headlines in October when four people claiming to be the rightful board of directors broke the padlock on the shelter gate and used a new lock to secure the gate behind them.
The sitting directors got a temporary injunction to have the occupiers removed by sheriff's deputies. The board also filed what is known as a complaint for declaratory relief.
Four of the people who broke into the shelter last year are defendants in the complaint: Lindsay Rance, Michele McCabe, Mary Zero and Al Iannuzzi. Rance. McCabe and Zero claim they were elected as officers at a meeting of members at the Spring Hill IHOP restaurant shortly before they attempted to take over the shelter.
The complaint states that the sitting board received no notice of the "secret meeting" or plans to hold an election.
In court documents, the defendants claim the directors were given notice of the October meeting and that more than two dozen SPCA members showed up to cast votes.
The defendants also allege unlicensed staffers at the shelter are administering medications, failing to properly treat animals and neglecting to keep proper medical records. Last month, the group filed a motion to force the plaintiffs to turn over the shelter's medical and financial records.
At a hearing Wednesday, Circuit Judge Lisa Herndon decided the records are not relevant to the case and denied the motion.
Rance, McCabe and Zero all served as board members in 2008. In an interview this week, Rance said they decided to get involved again after SPCA members expressed concerns about how the shelter was being managed.
"We are the legal board," Rance said. "But even if it's not us, somebody that has experience, that follows procedures, that doesn't kick someone out because they don't share the same opinion, should be running a humane animal facility."
Joyce Talley, the current board secretary, conceded the shelter was in bad shape when the current leaders took over, but said the place is immaculate and well run now. Medical records are up to date, and the shelter's employees are not doing anything improper, Talley said.
"Our goal is simply to get this case over with, prove these people don't belong there and continue what we're doing," she said.
Tony Marrero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1431.