TAMPA — The ground rules were written in marker on a large pad at the front of the room. "Soft on people, hard on idea," Rule No. 4 said. "No personal attacks," the moderator explained.
It was the evening of May 1. Animal advocates filled a room at the Mango Recreation Center to meet Scott Trebatoski, the new chief of Hillsborough County's animal shelter. In Jacksonville, he ran one of the best shelters in the state. More than 90 percent of the animals that enter Jacksonville's shelter come out alive. In Hillsborough, it's 46 percent.
Trebatoski's predecessor lost the job in December after months of complaints, some from people in this room. In February, the county announced the hire of Trebatoski, 51, who earns $120,000 a year to oversee Hillsborough Animal Services, headquartered at the 600-animal shelter. He started in March.
In his first few weeks, Trebatoski made changes that angered some animal advocates. It wasn't until the meeting, however, that he fully realized the pressures he'll face.
It did not take long for someone to break Rule No. 4.
Janet Gill criticized Trebatoski for being a "euthanasia expert."
"We'd rather have someone who's saving lives than killing them," said Gill, 57, of Tampa.
Trebatoski is state certified in euthanasia. He was confused why that would be held against him. Even the best shelters have to euthanize animals.
"Since you've been here, things have gotten worse," said animal lover Wendy Smith.
"I've been here approximately seven weeks," Trebatoski said. "I gave up a lot to come to this community, and I feel like I'm trying to make things better."
Amid murmuring, a voice called out. It was unclear who said it, but the message was clear.
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In 2012, Trebatoski was a finalist for the Hillsborough job. A panel including animal advocates instead picked Ian Hallett, deputy chief of the Austin, Texas, shelter.
In December, after months of criticism, County Administrator Mike Merrill transferred Hallett to another department after he was on the job less than two years. This led Trebatoski to assume that Hillsborough's live-release rate — the percentage of animals leaving alive, a shelter's prime measurement of success — had worsened.
He was wrong. The number had actually improved under Hallett. It went from 29 percent to 36 percent in 2012, and to 46 percent in 2013.
But there were other problems: disease outbreaks, adopted animals mistakenly euthanized. Two veterinarians quit, alleging poor management. The live-release rate was still low.
"Progress was being made," Trebatoski said Thursday. "Maybe not as fast as people liked. But the guy was saving more animals."
He knows how long it can take. In 2008, when he started in Jacksonville, the live-release rate was about 18 percent. It took nearly six years — and the help of other organizations — to top 90 percent.
"He was a dream to work with," said Denise Deisler, executive director of the Jacksonville Humane Society. "He knows how to most effectively and most efficiently save the most lives. … I hope the community will step up and help him."
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The moderator — Wanda Sloan, a county community affairs liaison — added a rule early in the meeting: one question per person. Like other rules, people ignored it.
Sloan interrupted the meeting multiple times to stop people after one question, to ask them not to make personal attacks, to ask them not to curse. At one point she felt the need to define the word "question," because many people were listing grievances.
People were unhappy they no longer could walk throughout the shelter. Trebatoski needed to get the animals in the shelter healthy, he said, which required isolating sick animals, and ensuring that when people visit sick animals they leave so they don't spread disease.
Volunteers were unhappy they no longer had access to medical records of recently admitted animals. Trebatoski said releasing that information about animals that don't technically belong to the county is legally shaky.
Once an animal is there five days, it's officially county property. Then, he said, he can release medical information, which can help volunteers find new homes for the animals.
Pit bull lovers wanted background checks and home inspections for anyone adopting pit bulls. Trebatoski said concerns about the shelter's pit bulls being used for dogfighting are overblown, and the restrictions would only scare people away.
Sherry Silk, executive director of the Humane Society of Tampa Bay, was not at the meeting but heard from a colleague about it.
"Animal people are impatient and sometimes can be a little unrealistic," she said Thursday.
In the two months since Trebatoski has taken over, Silk has seen improvement.
"People need to give him some time," she said. "What if he leaves? Who's going to want to come here?"
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Trebatoski is no stranger to controversy. His first animal control management job, in Lee County, ended in 2007 after one of his superiors questioned his ability. Trebatoski said that some staffers disagreed with his policies, and he lost a political battle. A county commissioner later told the Fort Myers News-Press that Trebatoski had been mistreated.
Last week, Trebatoski said he thought part of the hostility he had seen was pent-up frustration from years of poor results. He was asked to compare Hillsborough animal lovers with those in other communities.
"The intensity is a little bit higher here," he said. "The key is taking that high level of energy and that high level of emotion and focusing it in the proper direction. … That's how you get to every animal making it to a home."
Will Hobson can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400.