Commissioners lie, animals die

If you believe you have to travel to Raleigh or Washington, D.C., to witness sleazy politics, think again. At their July 25 meeting, the Buncombe County commissioners showed local taxpayers that you don’t have to leave home to witness politics at their worst.

After spending more than a year assuring the public that they would deal with the problems at the animal shelter and with animal-control services, the commissioners instead ended up making things worse. They unanimously adopted a “memorandum of understanding” issued to them by Friends for Animals. It includes a list of conditions under which the FFA would be willing to continue honoring its contracts with the county to run the shelter and animal-control services. One demand was that county-government officials fully support FFA (I always thought respect was earned, not demanded). Another demand was that the recently created Animal Services Advisory Board, which has criticized FFA’s performance, be eliminated. Another was that Mike Bradley, the county’s liaison to FFA, be replaced or his position eliminated.

It seems odd for a contracting organization to be making demands of the county; usually, it’s the other way around. And the commissioners have been assuring the public that the county would demand changes at FFA, but their promises turned out to be worthless. Before the May primary, both Bill Stanley and David Young said they would not vote in favor of FFA. In May 2000, Tom Sobol, chairman of the Board of Commissioners, stated, “There is a probability, or a possibility, that the county may take this operation back under county government — both the animal-control services and the operation of the shelter.” At the meeting, however, all of a sudden it was FFA dictating to the commissioners under what circumstances the group would be willing to honor its contract.

What changed so quickly? Why are the commissioners so afraid to just cancel the contracts, hire a manager for the shelter, and let the Sheriff’s Department run animal control (as is done in most N.C. counties)?

In January 2000, David Young stated, “Our whole board wants to see the [FFA] board meetings and records opened up … so you can clear the air of some of these issues.” And FFA did agree to allow public comment — but only at its general-membership meetings, which they’re required to hold just once a year. No public comment was allowed at the group’s last general-membership meeting, held on May 16. And at the one before that, held last October, FFA “boss” Bill McKelvy started swearing and stormed out of the building, saying he wasn’t going to listen to criticism. Meanwhile, other FFA members launched a tirade about the criticism. Since the organization operates almost exclusively on tax dollars, Mr. Young was on the right track when he called for open board meetings. What changed his mind? And why did the commissioners accept this hollow gesture from FFA?

At the July 25 commissioners’ meeting, both Patsy Keever and David Gantt called for an end to the personal attacks — from both sides — saying we must all work together in the best interest of the animals. Ironically, while these words were being spoken, Bill McKelvy was sitting behind me and personally attacking an FFA critic sitting next to me. In a voice clearly audible to me and others — and plainly meant to intimidate — I heard him tell someone that the FFA critic was “mentally ill.” The commissioners have turned a blind eye to FFA’s nasty behavior. And they have chosen to ignore those taxpayers who have voiced their concerns about FFA’s mistreatment of animals. FFA Vice President Jim Lee complained about critics with “ulterior motives” and attacks that were “obscenely personal,” Mr. Lee and FFA have never responded substantively to any of the criticism leveled against them. If any comments I or other critics have made have been untrue, we would be happy to apologize. But how would we ever know, when much that comes out of FFA is lies and spin?

This whole situation began more than a year ago when a group of about 30 people asked to speak to the FFA board about their grievances concerning shelter management, a decision not to prosecute an owner of malnourished horses, the treatment of volunteers, etc. Jim Lee (who was then the board president) had repeatedly denied the group a chance to speak at board meetings, so the group confronted the board. But both the FFA board and the executive director refused to deal with the issues.

Things escalated, and dozens and dozens of people started complaining to the commissioners — by phone, letter and at the commissioners’ meetings. There were complaints about injured animals being denied veterinary care and not being euthanized, about poorly trained employees, about animals dying because of improper ventilation, about abusive treatment of employees, about sexual harassment of employees, about financial inconsistencies, about a lack of response by animal control, etc. Commissioner Gantt told the media that the volume of complaints had rivaled the number generated by the hotly contested zoning issue. In response, the commissioners appointed Mike Bradley as director of animal services in November 1999, asking him to serve as liaison between the board of commissioners and FFA. Since then, Mr. Bradley has received the bulk of the complaints.

The commissioners appointed a nine-member Animal Services Advisory Board on Dec. 21, 1999. During a discussion about establishing such a body, Chairman Sobol stated: “We’re putting this board together to get all these groups who have an interest in animal welfare to the same table. Hopefully this [committee] could mediate some of the disparities, discrepancies and ill will that has been developing between these groups.” Yet when the board was formed, the only animal group represented was FFA, in the person of none other than appointee Bill McKelvy. Commissioner Keever said she wanted to make sure that no one who had an “ax to grind” with FFA would be named to the board.

To make matters worse, the commissioners then charged the advisory board to limit itself to rewriting the county’s animal-control ordinance and working on spay/neuter issues. At a subsequent advisory-board meeting, County Manager Wanda Greene specifically told the board not to discuss the problems with FFA — the very reason the group was created. Nonetheless — and despite the fact that the board included no representatives of animal groups critical of FFA — the Animal Services Advisory Board voted unanimously on May 15 (McKelvy was absent) “that the County resume control of the animal services presently contracted to Friends for Animals.” But instead of listening to the unanimous recommendation of their advisory board — which had been taking the complaints about FFA and evaluating the situation — the commissioners accepted FFA’s demand that the advisory board be dissolved. Why? Could it be because FFA board members have consistently contributed money to the commissioners’ campaigns?

So we’re back where we began — only now things are worse. Soon there will be no advisory board allowing public comment. Most likely there will be no liaison for the public to contact. FFA will continue to hold closed board meetings, but now they have a newly created staff position — public relations director — to help them more effectively “spin” their responses to complaints. Ironically, one of the most consistant criticisms has been that FFA hires too many directors and not enough people to care for the animals. Commissioner Gantt advised concerned county residents to take their criticisms to the FFA board members, but that’s precisely how all the trouble started — with the FFA board digging in its heels and denying that there were any problems.

And now the commissioners are fully supporting FFA. Tails between their legs, the commissioners have lied to the public and accepted FFA’s conditions, as dictated. The animals are suffering and dying, and no one with the power to do anything about it seems to care. The question is WHY?

[Terri David, vice president of Carolina Animal Action, lives in Buncombe County.]

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