TAMPA — Embattled Hillsborough County Animal Services director Ian Hallett has been transferred to the parks department, County Administrator Mike Merrill announced Monday.
Code enforcement director Dexter Barge will serve as interim director of the Animal Services Department, which has faced growing criticism in the past several months.
Hallett, who makes $104,936, was hired 18 months ago and tasked with further dropping Hillsborough's euthanasia rate. And while the agency has done so, along with increasing adoptions, it has faced complaints from animal welfare advocates about disease and botched euthanasias.
In April, Hallett's proposal for a two-year pilot program to trap, neuter and release stray cats proved controversial. Two of the shelter's three full-time veterinarians left last summer, complaining about poor management. In early November, Animal Services took the unusual step of not accepting most new dogs for about nine days due to a respiratory virus in the community.
Last month, some county commissioners started to question whether the right leadership was in place, and a former Temple Terrace city manager was brought in to evaluate the agency's management and operations.
That man, Kim Leinbach, is expected to report his findings in January. But Merrill told the Tampa Bay Times on Monday that he felt it necessary to take action before then. Hallett is now the county's manager of parks services.
"We all the did the best we could to find a way to carry out the mission, and at a certain point, it's not a question of who's at fault, who's to blame," he said. "There simply needs to be a change of leadership at this point to stabilize the leadership and move forward with the mission."
Barge will continue working as code enforcement director, Merrill told county commissioners in a memo Monday. Barge's initial mission at Animal Services is to ensure the integrity of the shelter and the welfare of the animals, the county administrator said.
"This will require that Dexter restore trust among the rescue groups and volunteers who are essential to our mission, as well as to improve customer service," the memo states.
Barge started Monday and said he plans to spend the first week getting to know Animal Service's staff, listening to their concerns and identifying areas that need to be prioritized.
"I'm very sensitive to the emotions. I'm very sensitive to the outside groups," he said. "I'm very sensitive to the employees, their concerns and their needs. My job is to come in and try to balance all that and bring a sense of rationale to that all."
Leinbach, who arrived several weeks ago to assess shelter operations, will continue working at Animals Services until further notice, Merrill's memo states. After operations are "stabilized" at Animals Services, work will begin on deciding its future leadership.
Hallett, 36, will continue to receive his current salary after the transfer. It's unclear whether Hallett, a native of Riverview, has specific parks and recreation experience. He started as an animal services volunteer in Austin, Texas, eight years ago and joined that city's staff in 2007.
Merrill said Hallett is qualified for the parks job because of his management experience. County Commissioner Mark Sharpe pointed out that Hallett is an avid cyclist and outdoorsman.
Sharpe and several other commissioners said they agreed with Hallett's ousting from Animal Services.
"My sense from the beginning was that an adjustment needed to be made," Sharpe said. "I was pretty clear about that with the county administer and staff several months back."
Sharpe called the agency's situation a "civil war" and said he probably would have made the change sooner. Commissioner Victor Crist was not surprised by Hallett's transfer.
"This issue has been caught up in a lot of revolving discussions and concerns, and frankly, I don't think that there's anything we could have done that would have satisfied everyone," Crist said. "I think at this point, you cut your losses, you move on, you try to mend bridges and build consensus."
Commissioner Kevin Beckner agreed that new leadership should help the agency, while also acknowledging that Hallett was handed some tough circumstances. He arrived as the commission changed some of its policies, aiming to become a low-kill shelter. Also, some employees still had allegiances to the old administration, Beckner said.
"I think he came into a perfect storm," Beckner said.
In his memo, Merrill recognized Hallett's "dedication, hard work and passion." And Merrill said the issues at the shelter are complicated and blame cannot easily be assigned.
In previous months, Merrill voiced support for Hallett, saying the director came on board during a difficult time as the county tried to dramatically reduce euthanasia. That mission won't change with Hallett's departure, Merrill said.
"Ian has done an extremely good job given the situation he was faced with and major changes," Merrill said. "I think given the circumstances he's done a very good job. He's taken a lot of criticism, some which is not deserved."
Hallett did not return phone messages on Monday.
In his 25 years with the county, Merrill said the management of Animal Services has always been an emotional one. "People get very passionate about animals," he said.
Veterinarian Mike Haworth, chairman of Hillsborough's Animal Advisory Committee, agreed. He said Hallett is a "really nice guy" who had big shoes to fill after the previous administration.
Maybe if Hallett had been able to sell his ideas to the agency and the community, he might have gotten more support, Haworth said.
"He was bringing in a bunch of new philosophies and a bunch of changes, and for whatever reason wasn't able to communicate his ideas to those around him so they could follow the plan," Haworth said.
Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.