NEW PORT RICHEY — Three months after being shut down amid controversy, New Port Richey's volunteer animal protection unit is back in operation, but with little oversight from the city.
Since the animal program began renting kennels in Land O'Lakes after being asked to leave facilities on loan from the SPCA in March, city leaders have not paid much attention to its new home.
The program's creator and volunteer director, Sharon McReynolds, told the Times during a visit to the kennels Monday that there's been no need.
About 40 dogs are being cared for by a dozen or so volunteers at the site a few miles south of State Road 52 on Land O'Lakes Boulevard, McReynolds said. And the unit has begun a new adoption drive every Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. that has been a success.
"I think we are doing a very good job," she said.
At the kennels on Monday, the dogs all appeared healthy and vigorous. Two volunteers were at work cleaning. McReynolds said when dogs arrive they often are injured, sick or shy, but in a short time interacting with the volunteers they quickly perk up.
New Port Richey decided last year to stop using Pasco County Animal Services, and launched its own volunteer-run program to handle animal complaints in October. At first, the program borrowed kennels next to the SPCA's Congress Street headquarters in New Port Richey. But the SPCA called on the city in March to vacate those kennels after a parvo outbreak killed 10 dogs from the SPCA shelter.
SPCA executive director Jennie Briguglio believed the outbreak originated at the kennels on loan to the city. The city-run kennel had been placed under quarantine after losing two dogs to parvovirus, but McReynolds never told the neighboring SPCA.
That revelation came on the heels of concerns raised by former police Chief James Steffens over McReynolds' handling of the unit's operations. Among other things, he described how McReynolds authorized $1,400 in medical care for a pit bull terrier that Steffens said should be euthanized, and noted that McReynolds refused to put down a couple of other sickly dogs that an ex-volunteer believed were needlessly suffering.
Amid those issues, Steffens shut down the unit temporarily in March, leading McReynolds to call on the program's supporters to turn out for a City Council meeting. Several people spoke from a packed crowd at City Hall, many launching personal attacks on Steffens. Steffens has since left the department for a job with the Sheriff's Office.
Two weeks later McReynolds moved the program to the kennels in Land O'Lakes, which are being rented from veterinarian Joseph Brooks. At the same time, interim City Manager Susan Dillinger pledged to take oversight of the operation away from the police department.
But earlier this month, when asked about reports that the kennels in Land O'Lakes were already full, Dillinger told the Times she has never been to the facility. And Deputy Mayor Bill Phillips — who amid the crisis in March repeatedly called for a report to council which never came — said the city has been letting the program "breathe."
"I think we needed to let the program gain some experience so now we can really define how we want to move," said Phillips.
Meanwhile, a public record request for documents concerning the unit was referred to McReynolds, who said she is completing a year-end summary that is not yet available.
This comes as volunteers are raising still more questions over McReynolds' handling of the unit.
Volunteer Jessica Caplette emailed McReynolds asking to meet, stating the volunteers have "overlooked so much in hopes that things would get better."
"You, unfortunately, have not been willing to share any responsibility or information with 'your' volunteers. The result has been slowly leading to disaster as the amount of animals in the shelter continues to rise," Caplette wrote.
After receiving no response from McReynolds, Tonya Vogt, the unit's volunteer kennel manager, sent an email to Dillinger asking for a meeting. She said volunteers wanted to meet with McReynolds "to resolve important animal care procedures. Those requests have been disregarded."
Vogt, who McReynolds has long touted as one of her most dedicated volunteers, added, "It is imperative that there are changes made for the well-being of the animals."
Both Vogt and Caplette declined to discuss the emails further, saying they want to meet with Dillinger first.
Interim police Chief Kim Bogart — who appears to be the only city official to have visited the kennels since the move to Land O'Lakes — expressed support for McReynolds and said she is dealing with a disgruntled volunteer who did not want to follow the rules. McReynolds echoed that assertion but declined to name that person.
McReynolds did not respond to a request for comment on the volunteers' emails.
When asked who oversees the unit at this point, Bogart said communication with McReynolds has been very good. He did ask on Monday for McReynolds to begin supplying him with a monthly report on operations.
"I'm not going to be the person who gets in the way of this program working," Bogart told the Times. "Now, if the volunteers shoot themselves in the foot, then shame on them."
Council member Jeff Starkey, who joined the board in April, said he would like for the City Council to be updated on the animal control unit. Starkey said prior to his election he attended the meeting during which Steffens was blasted for asking questions and doesn't want to see it again.
"I would love to see it on the agenda. I don't want to see this gain momentum to where we have a debacle like that meeting again," Starkey said.