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Another dog euthanization error at Hernando County Animal Services puts safety director in hot seat

BROOKSVILLE — Another dog has been euthanized by mistake at Hernando County Animal Services, and this time public safety director Mike Nickerson is in the hot seat for the error.

Not only does he face discipline, but in a memo to Nickerson and to Spring Hill Fire Rescue Chief Mike Rampino on Friday, County Administrator Len Sossamon temporarily assigned Nickerson to oversee Animal Services on a full-time basis so he can implement all of the recommendations made in a recent audit of the operation.

"To permit Chief Nickerson to focus on running the Animal Services Division, I am temporarily relieving him of his oversight of Hernando County Fire Rescue,'' Sossamon wrote.

"Chief Rampino will immediately assume administrative oversight over Hernando County Fire Rescue. This assignment will be in addition to his current duties.''

The county's and Spring Hill's fire-rescue services are in the process of being merged.

On Sept. 7, workers at the county animal shelter confused one reddish-brown mixed breed dog with another, euthanizing a dog that had come in just two days earlier rather than one that had already been put through the screening process and been selected for euthanasia.

Immediately after Nickerson found out about the mistake, he notified county officials and the volunteers at the shelter who have been working to decrease euthanasias by finding people and rescue organizations to take more animals.

He told the volunteers: "As I am involved and at least partly at fault in the error, I will be providing a full disclosure of the facts to the county administrator . . . and asking that he or his designee investigate and handle any disciplinary action necessary.''

Sossamon assigned the investigation to Ron Pianta, the county's land services director, and Jerry Haines of Human Resources.

In a four-page memo released late Friday, Pianta and Haines determined that continuing problems with a short staff, procedures that have not been implemented consistently, and confusing identification processes for animals all contributed to the mistake.

The Animal Services workers used different information when identifying dogs for euthanasia. In this case, Animal Services officer Michael Steele used the kennel number to identify the dog chosen for euthanasia and not the animal identification number. The problem was that the dog had been moved to a different kennel, and the newly arrived dog had been put in its place.

Steele, who was one of the Animal Services officers slated to move over to the Sheriff's Office in the new fiscal year, has resigned.

He is also the officer who earlier this summer was reprimanded and suspended for accidentally leaving a kitten locked inside his truck for more than 40 hours.

The kitten survived the ordeal, only to be euthanized several days later because it was feral.

Sossamon said Friday that the latest investigation showed that the same problems for which Animal Services has been criticized in recent audits and reports continue. Because of the continuing problems, he said he couldn't justify discipline for anyone at the shelter other than Nickerson.

Although the full extent of the discipline will not be decided until early next week, Sossamon acknowledged that there have been some bad management decisions at the shelter and not enough momentum toward making needed changes.

Sossamon said more attention is needed to fix day-to-day procedural issues at the shelter. Another change, which employees said they had asked Nickerson to make several times, will be to move euthanasias to the start of the day, before the public is in the shelter.

By euthanizing animals at the end of the day, "that puts a lot of pressure on folks to rush through,'' Sossamon said.

The issues at Animal Services first blew up in April, when volunteers made public the story of Zeus, an 8-month-old dog that was surrendered to the shelter, then euthanized just 12 minutes later.

The outcry prompted the county to seek an extensive audit of Animal Services. The report, released last month, found that the shelter did nothing technically wrong in the Zeus incident. But it said the operation was rife with other problems, ranging from too few staffers to a lack of procedures.

At a town hall meeting several weeks ago, Nickerson described some of the things he hoped to do to improve Animal Services. Although it was expected that those details would be finalized this month, the proposal is now scheduled to come to the commission in October.

Nickerson declined to comment Friday, saying he wanted to see Sossamon's disciplinary process through to the end.

Another question about his future with the county is raised by an item on the agenda for Tuesday's County Commission meeting. Commissioners will consider advertising for a new director of integrated fire-rescue and public safety services.

Sossamon said with the merger of the county and Spring Hill fire-rescues operations, there is a need for someone to oversee the final stages of consolidation and then run the new service.

The job will be open for anyone to apply, including Nickerson, Rampino, members of either of the chief's staffs, as well as outside applicants.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

Another dog euthanization error at Hernando County Animal Services puts safety director in hot seat 09/21/12 [Last modified: Friday, September 21, 2012 8:31pm]
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