By Christie Keith
April 8, 2008
Have you missed seeing my head explode? Then it’s your lucky day.
Let’s say you volunteer in a shelter. Let’s say there are problems, so much so that an investigation is ordered and paid for by the county that operates the shelter. And then let’s say that the people who work in and run the shelter don’t particularly like that, and decide that criticism from volunteers is a workplace issue, and use laws and regulations against a “hostile working environment” to silence you.
What would you do? Resign so you could continue to speak out for the animals, but leaving them with a reduced volunteer staff and stuck in the same situation about which you’re complaining, but now without you to see what’s going on? Keep volunteering as well as talking, and risk legal action?
From the San Luis Obispo, CA Tribune:
County Sheriff Pat Hedges has instituted a new policy barring county Animal Services volunteers from making public statements criticizing the shelter or its operations.
The policy comes months after a county employee union complained that derogatory statements about workers were being made within Animal Services, according to Undersheriff Steve Bolts.
Bolts would not elaborate on that incident because itâ€™s a personnel issue. Animal Services is a division of the Sheriffâ€™s Department.
But he said: â€œIt was deemed that it needed to be made clear to volunteers that disparaging remarks about fellow employees were inappropriate and had the potential of creating a hostile work environment.â€
The new policy also comes after volunteers have stepped up their public complaints to county leaders about what some allege is poor management at Animal Services.
Those complaints led the county Board of Supervisors to spend nearly $23,000 to have the Humane Society of the United States evaluate the agencyâ€™s operations.
The society is expected to submit a final report in late June or early July, according to county Administrative Analyst Leslie Brown.
Chief among the 13-page volunteer policy adopted by the Sheriffâ€™s Department last week is a provision that forbids volunteers from making public statements that â€œcriticize, ridicule, or otherwise disparage the (Animal Services) division, its employees, volunteers, or policies.â€
Under the new policy, volunteers are barred from â€œaddressing any public gathering, appearing on a radio or TV program, writing articles or manuscripts for publication, making Internet postings or any other public or publicly accessible representations as a representative of the division.â€
A number of longtime volunteers The Tribune tried to reach did not return calls seeking comment.
Apparently the good people of San Luis Obispo think this is as wrong as I do, because a few minutes ago, the poll accompanying this article showed 86 percent as saying the volunteers should be ungagged, for “free speech and watchdog reasons.” Woof.
One local reader commented:
THIS is why the Animal Shelter is dysfunctional, and does not serve the animals well. It should NOT be a police state, it should be an animal WELFARE operation. Get law enforcement out of there. How many more animals have to die waiting for homes because no one wants to deal with the atmposphere there?
You go to adopt a pet and you feel like a criminal. It’s cold and depressing. The staff (if you can find one) is usually rude and uninterested in the animals (I’m not a volunteer, so I still have free speech on that, right?)
If it wasn’t for the volunteers, I can’t even imagine how many animals would have been put down because they weren’t adopted. The volunteers do their best to make a facility that resembles something out of a Dickens novel, and makes it somewhat more pleasant.
Now they tell the volunteers they cannot speak out. So, because they are not paid, do the whistle-blower laws not apply to them? Hmmm…
Perhaps the County should spend more time trying to figure out why the operation is resoundly criticized by the public and it’s own volunteers, instead of trying to muzzle them.
Get law enforcement out of the pet business!!!!
This is emerging as a pattern, isn’t it? Observers — volunteers, members of the public, local government officials — allege that an animal control department is not fulfilling its mission and may even be neglecting or harming the animals in its care. The departments, facing criticism, blame volunteers, “irresponsible pet owners,” and consultants hired to evaluate the shelters, then circle the wagons and attack the messenger instead of becoming part of the solution.
Full story and poll here.