BROOKSVILLE — For animal advocates hoping to see positive changes at Hernando County Animal Services, Tuesday offered not just one win but two.
County Commissioners approved a reorganization plan that will add a veterinarian manager, two other staffers and the assistance of jail trustees — just as public safety director Mike Nickerson had recommended.
But the commission wasn't ready to discuss the proposed new animal services ordinance, which many animal welfare activists strongly opposed. In fact, as the meeting began Tuesday in the standing-room-only commission chambers, Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes asked for a show of hands from people there to talk new animal ordinance.
Most of the hands in the room shot up.
Dukes and the other commissioners acknowledged that they had each received hundreds of emails in the last couple of days from all over the world urging the commission not pass the ordinance, which first became public with the release of the agenda on Friday.
"There are some things in there that are either unclear or misleading,'' he said, noting that there was no way to hear the issue Tuesday. "We can't fix it today. It's not fair to you and not fair to us with this much interest and this many questions."
Dukes promised the people crowding the room that county staff would meet with their key representatives to redraft the ordinance before it is scheduled to come back before the commission on Nov. 13.
County officials have been anxious to get a handle on issues at Animal Services for months. The premature euthanization of a dog named Zeus in April, a critical review from the University of Florida and a series of findings and recommendations by an auditor all led to Tuesday's recommendations to the commission.
The reviews recommended adding five staff members but, conscious of the county's current budget issues, Nickerson trimmed that to three new staff members. One will be a veterinarian who also serves as shelter manager. One will be an animal advocate and coordinator of rescues and volunteers. The third is a veterinarian technician. Jail trustees will round out the additional help planned for Animal Services.
The cost is $245,000 and this year's share of that was to come out of the county's reserves. Commissioners didn't settle on how to pay the cost into the future.
Dukes noted that many of the emails the commissioners received on animal services were not from county citizens and he noted that many of the headline-producing mistakes made at the shelter were due to people not following the rules.
He suggested that what was really needed was a strong leader and "to fix this from the top down.''
But Nickerson stood his ground on the issue of fully implementing the audit recommendations. He said that even a strong leader can't fix everything when animal services staff has been decimated by cuts in recent years. He blamed himself and partially former animal and code services director Liana Teague for perhaps not fighting strongly enough for the needs of the department.
Laurie Boynton, the volunteer who first blew the whistle on the Zeus case, praised the addition of the needed staff especially the animal advocate to ensure that someone inside animal services was working with the same goal as the volunteers — to save more animals.
"You know how important this issue is in Hernando County, that animals are treated humanely,'' she said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.