TAMPA — Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill finally decided this week that his Animal Services director was not up to the task of reforming that agency after months of turmoil at the shelter.
But instead of firing Ian Hallett, Merrill transferred him to a different management role in the county's Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department, where he has no experience.
Merrill said he decided to retain Hallett because he's smart and a hard worker who actually made progress in achieving county commissioners' desire to see fewer animals killed at the shelter each year and more adopted. Where he struggled was in his ability to negotiate the various people and groups who take a passionate and sometimes hard-line interest in animal welfare issues.
"What most people don't want to acknowledge is that he was in fact successful in two areas he was expected to be," Merrill said. "This is an individual who didn't shirk his duties."
Merrill said he decided to make a change after he brought in former Temple Terrace City Manager Kim Leinbach as a consultant to provide an independent assessment of Animal Services. Merrill's depiction of Hallett's strengths and struggles were guided by Leinbach's review.
The decision to keep Hallett on the county rolls has irked some animal advocates. Many have been calling for his head. David Campo, a development consultant and animal advocate, sent an email to Merrill critical of the job transfer.
"I find it difficult, if not unfathomable, that one can get 'fired' and ridiculously rewarded on the same day," Campo wrote in the email that was copied to commissioners.
Hallett is taking a pay hit in his new job as manager of parks services. His salary was $104,936 as Animal Services director and is now $88,525. He did not return a phone call seeking comment.
In his new job, Hallett will have a few different responsibilities. He will write grant proposals for such things as conservation money to manage the county's environmentally sensitive lands. He will work with the various private groups that help manage or put on programs at county parks to make sure they are meeting their responsibilities. He will also help oversee plans for new parks or for renovations at existing ones.
Parks director Jack Carlisle said he believes Hallett has the smarts, work ethic and education to succeed in the new job. Carlisle points to Hallett's master's degree in public policy from the University of Texas and two bachelor's degrees from New College.
"So he has the ability to learn quickly," Carlisle said.
Carlisle has a distinct appreciation for the challenges Hallett faced in Animal Services, particularly as it relates to interacting with employees, volunteers and advocacy groups. He served as interim Animal Services director twice, including right before Hallett started.
Hallett, 36, was hired by the county 18 months ago, the top selection of three interview panels that included animal-welfare advocates, Merrill noted. Hallett started as a shelter volunteer in Austin, Texas, before joining its staff and rising to deputy director as it underwent a change like the one in Hillsborough to sharply reduce the number of animals killed each year.
Once here, he faced resistance from some of his employees and volunteers, some unhappy with the management change. Two veterinarians quit, complaining of poor communication and direction. There were outbreaks of disease attributed to poor management of animals held longer in an effort to increase adoption rates. Some dogs up for adoption were mistakenly euthanized.
The troubles tended to drown out improvements in adoptions and reduced kill rates.
The county has in the past shifted managers who have fallen into disfavor into make-work jobs with the understanding they should be looking for new work. Merrill has not taken that approach as administrator and says he is not here.
"I think he can do a good job," Merrill said. "I want to give him a chance. I hope he stays."