TAMPA — Some Hillsborough County commissioners are starting to question whether the right leadership is in place at the public animal shelter.
They expressed frustration Wednesday about the number of complaints they continue to receive from animal welfare advocates about disease, botched euthanasias and poor management at the shelter. At the same time, they acknowledged the passion of those advocates and acknowledged having a hard time judging the seriousness of some complaints and whether Animal Services director Ian Hallett can eventually quell them.
"I don't believe that the current leadership can do it," said Commissioner Mark Sharpe.
The topic was broached as County Administrator Mike Merrill sought permission to temporarily contract with Temple Terrace's former city manager to assist Hallett in working with volunteers and rescue groups that have been some of his biggest detractors. During the discussion, Merrill made clear he expects Kim Leinbach to provide a detached, outside perspective on whether Hallett is up to the task of managing the shelter.
"Because I'm not there on the ground, and because there are two widely divergent opinions, it's really difficult to know without having someone in there who has no agenda, no point of view," Merrill said.
Commissioners ultimately voted to give Merrill permission to bring on Leinbach. He will be paid up to $4,500 per month. Merrill said he's hoping he can get an assessment of shelter operations in a couple of months.
Commissioner Kevin Beckner said he has fielded many complaints about shelter operations. In recent months, the shelter has faced scrutiny for sick animals and the departure of veterinarians who have complained about poor management.
Like Hillsborough's, shelters around the country that have joined the so-called no-kill or low-kill movement have experienced similar rocky transitions. Merrill has noted that lost in the complaints are increases in the number of adoptions at the shelter in a little more than one year since Hallett has been on the job.
He has blamed shelter groups, volunteers and employees who have objected to the change in philosophy and management. And Beckner said that those two factors, plus a quick transition, have created a perfect storm.
At the same time, Beckner added, "There's a difference between a manager and a leader in an organization. What is Mr. Hallett? I don't know."
An attempt to reach Hallett Wednesday was unsuccessful.
Commission Chairman Ken Hagan cautioned his fellow board members that they have no authority over employment decisions involving workers below Merrill, the county attorney and the auditor. Hagan has been a leading advocate for reducing shelter kill rates.
In other action, the board voted unanimously in support of Merrill's seeking applications for an outside group or groups to take over its transitional housing program for the homeless. The program has been the subject of news stories in the Tampa Bay Times about how the county has paid public money with little oversight to house people in slumlike conditions.