County tells shelter volunteers to shut up about problems

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 it’s a personnel issue. Animal Services is a division of the Sheriff’s Department.

But he said: “It 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.”

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 agency’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 Sheriff’s Department last week is a provision that forbids volunteers from making public statements that “criticize, ridicule, or otherwise disparage the (Animal Services) division, its employees, volunteers, or policies.”

Under the new policy, volunteers are barred from “addressing 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.”

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.

Filed under: no-kill,pets, connected — Christie Keith @ 1:43 pm

12 Comments »

  1. It’s funny how they tried to think of every possible way the volunteers might be heard (radio, internet, etc.) Sounds like they *really* don’t want those volunteers’ opinions known to the public. Good thing there’s so many anonymous blog sites available to anyone who wants to speak out but wants to maintain ‘plausible denial’. ; )

    Comment by slt — April 8, 2008 @ 2:31 pm

  2. Funny that.

    Comment by Christie Keith — April 8, 2008 @ 2:53 pm

  3. Let’s hope that the position of San Luis Obispo County Sheriff is an elected one and that he’s out soon. What an idiotic thing to do.

    Comment by Susan Fox — April 8, 2008 @ 6:57 pm

  4. Hmm, I thought you were talking about the King County shelter again.
    http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2004331980_sheltervolunteers07m.html
    Other volunteers have found themselves at odds with management. After an outspoken volunteer at the Crossroads shelter was temporarily suspended in January, 23 volunteers wrote the County Council to say she was being punished for publicly questioning management policies.

    Comment by kb — April 8, 2008 @ 10:27 pm

  5. As much as folks like to cast doubt on Winograd’s opinion of the current Shelter system, the more I hear about it, the more it just convinces me that he IS totally right about it all…

    It’s just sad how so many seem to have forgotten all about the animals wellbeing, and just want to protect their own behinds.

    Comment by Pai — April 8, 2008 @ 11:16 pm

  6. I was glad to see the HSUS was the consultant brought in on this one, because this issue is NOT about Nathan Winograd. It’s about a changing paradigm of animal control and sheltering. And I am hearing stories from all over the country that are similar in one way or another to each other.

    Comment by Christie Keith — April 8, 2008 @ 11:22 pm

  7. Not just animal shelters. In our county private personal emails between employees on govt computers were made public (which as far as I can tell was against the law, Florida sunshine law or no) and some of those emails were not (shall we say) complimentary about some public officials. Some were fired. Admittedly, part of the issue was use of govt equipment on govt time for non-govt issues (but do we fire people for standing at the water cooler and dishing?), but at the base was the issue that they shouldn’t be saying bad things about govt. while they were employed by same.

    I think it’s just becoming more popular to put in employee conduct regs that govt employees must be muzzled, period.

    AFAIC, this is all blowback from the Homeland Security squashing of civil rights. Being in total control seems to be a big issue for local govts especially. Restriction is the word of the day, as can be witnessed by local regulatory efforts WRT speutering/pit bulls (sic)/number of animals allowed in your home. I think fighting these issues, whether animal related or not, is important on your local homefront. Once they get a taste with a success, they’ll just keep going.

    Comment by CathyA — April 9, 2008 @ 6:25 am

  8. Not just animal shelters. In our county private personal emails between employees on govt computers were made public (which as far as I can tell was against the law, Florida sunshine law or no) and some of those emails were not (shall we say) complimentary about some public officials. Some were fired.

    Not to defend the use they made of it, but honestly, if you think that anything you do on your employer’s computer (whoever the employer is) is private from the employer, or that they can’t use it as a basis to fire you, you’re mistaken. This is one the employers won, long before 9/11.

    Admittedly, part of the issue was use of govt equipment on govt time for non-govt issues (but do we fire people for standing at the water cooler and dishing?), but at the base was the issue that they shouldn’t be saying bad things about govt. while they were employed by same.

    In fact people have been fired for standing around at the water cooler dishing.

    Now, I think there ought to be more right to criticize the government when you’re an employee of it, even on the job, than other employers. And I don’t doubt that in this case the firings were to suppress needed criticism, not to protect productivity. But the fact remains, if you’re going to criticize your employer, it’s a bad idea to use the employer’s resources to do so.

    Comment by Lis — April 9, 2008 @ 8:08 am

  9. Granted, the whole thing was pretty stupid on the part of the employees. That’s not my point.

    In FL we have the Sunshine Law, which says that any communication discussing govt biz between parties working for any govt (and any meeting) is public info. This includes email addys if you email a govt office. It does not include private communication not discussing govt business however, which is a case already won in the courts yrs ago.

    By public I mean I could go request copies of communication. I’m not talking about your immediate supervisor seeing it, but it becoming published in the paper or available for any citizen to look at. A BD card sent to me at a FL govt workplace is not public info. A note to a friend in another FL govt office on my breaktime discussing a mastectomy is not public info.

    Anyway, I’ve gotten OT. My point was that if you see power grabs going on locally, even if it’s not animal related, doesn’t hurt to let the powers that be know someone is paying attention. Once that mindset is established, it spreads like a virus.

    Comment by CathyA — April 9, 2008 @ 11:27 am

  10. Perhaps some of you have already seen this story about Best Friends’ work in Pahrump, Nevada… It was a volunteer who blew the whistle, and in so doing, helped save the lives of more than 800 cats!

    http://www.moderncat.net/2008/04/06/reflections-on-the-best-friends-cat-rescue-cats-laid-to-rest-case-moves-to-the-courts/#more-342

    Comment by Peter — April 9, 2008 @ 10:39 pm

  11. The manager of the San Luis Obispo shelter is totally responsible for all the problems there. His name is Eric Anderson. He does not have the animals best interest at heart, and spends plenty of money on other things besides the animals. New leather chairs in his office, a $5,000 Bose stereo system also in his office, to name a few! I guess he has to be comfy when he spends all day in his office and not attending to any veterinary concerns of the suffering animals in the kennel. May I remind people who don’t know him, he is a veterinarian who would rather kill the animals than treat them. His misdiagnosed conditions of the animals, gives him their ticket to the crematorium. He is so very evil it is scary. And he actually has the audacity to call himself a vet. It’s no wonder he wants to restrict the volunteers comments, because they actually know about his dastardly deeds. Something needs to happen at the San Luis Obispo shelter and soon. The animals can’t talk and they desperately need your help, they are the innocent victims.

    Comment by Cindy Walsh — April 28, 2008 @ 7:51 am

  12. I agree. Animal Services of SLO does need a major improvement. It is not fair to all those innocent animals. I adopted my dog from Animal Services. My dog was conviscated from Cindy Walsh, the person who commented above. Cindy Walsh had way too many animals. Perhaps she did not want them in the hands of Eric Anderson, however they should not have been in the hands of Cindy Walsh either. Her dogs were living in filth. They were in such cramped quarters that their feet were burned from URINE and FECES. Many of them had ear infections that were not attended to as they should have been and many of them were not groomed on a regular basis, therefore causing skin problems. Many of the dogs toe nails were overgrown, growing into the skin of their own pads. They smelled horrible the day they were picked up. Animal Services didn’t even care for them any better. The dogs were cramped in close quarters at the shelter too, but at least their feces and urine was cleaned by the volunteers on a regular basis. The best thing Animal Services did, was get all but a few adopted out as soon as they could. If it werent for a volunteer to have them bathed and groomed accordingly, animal services would have just let them continue to suffer in the filth Cindy Walsh allowed them to live. Yes, something needs to happen at the SLO animal shelter, but Cindy Walsh also needs to realize that even though she loved her dogs, she did not take any better care of them than Eric Anderson as she let them suffer in their own skin.

    Comment by Heather B. — January 3, 2009 @ 7:06 pm

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