Animal Shelter ad hoc committee members, from left, Jennifer Young, Chair Wendee Brunish, Wendy Marcus and Melissa Bartlett along with Los Alamos Police Department liaison to the committee Sgt. Daniel Roberts at the beginning of Wednesday’s meeting. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
Animal shelter ad hoc committee Chair Wendee Brunish, left, and member Wendy Marcus at Wednesday’s meeting in the Municipal Building. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
A social media post by a member of an ad hoc committee appointed by Los Alamos County Council last August to consider future alternatives for the Los Alamos Animal Shelter set an at times tense tone for the committee’s monthly meeting Wednesday evening. More then 30 members of the public attended the meeting which was held in the Boards and Commissions meeting room at the Municipal Building.
Ad hoc committee members are Chair Wendee Brunish, Wendy Marcus, Linda Zweck, Melissa Bartlett, Mary Timmers, Sally Wilkins and Jennifer Young. Wilkins was not in attendance at Wednesday’s meeting.
Board member Wendy Marcus had posted on Facebook that there is “a good chance” that the animal shelter will close unless the Council will give it more funding. The post said the additional funding required would be about $150,000 a year for two additional staff members including benefits.
Marcus mentioned that she is on the ad hoc committee. She said the shelter has been understaffed for years and that more than 500 animals were cared for by the shelter last year.
“You probably don’t know this, because although our meetings are public, they are not being advertised. All the other Boards and Committees meeting times and agendas are posted on the County website and on (Facebook), our meetings are not. Not sure why they are not being advertised. We have been meeting since last September,” Marcus said.
Her post said a solution suggested by committee chair Wendee Brunish at the committee’s last public meeting is that the shelter here become a “transfer only shelter”.
“A transfer only shelter would hold stray animals for five days and then transfer them to the Santa Fe Shelter. Owner surrenders would be transferred right away to the Santa Fe Shelter. She (Brunish) has confirmed the Santa Fe Shelter’s willingness to do this,” Marcus said. “It is quite possible that the Shelter will turn into a transfer only shelter, due to lack of funding. There would no longer be a place to adopt animals in Los Alamos County. Public outreach programs would stop and volunteer opportunities would end. All due to the lack of $150,000.00/year.”
Marcus noted in her post that shelter staff are required to care for usually 10 dogs and five cats at a time, sometimes twice that number, deal with the public in person and on the phone, keep the necessary paperwork, manage and train volunteers and go out on animal control calls.
“There are not enough staff to do all of these jobs. Frequently the Shelter has to be closed because there is only one staff member and they have to go out on a animal control call. The County has come to rely on volunteers to do the jobs that the staff simply does not have time to do. Volunteers are supposed to be there to walk the dogs and socialize/train the animals to make them more adoptable. If the volunteers don’t have time to do this, the animals become less adoptable. If they have do the tasks that the staff simply does not have time to do, the volunteers have little time to help make the shelter animals more adoptable,” Marcus said. “Once an animal comes into the shelter, the County owns that animal. The County has a legal and ethical duty to give the animals they own the best care.”
Marcus suggested that if members of the public care about abandoned and stray animals in the County they should attend Wednesday’s meeting. Several people told the Los Alamos Reporter prior to the meeting that Marcus’s post was the reason they were there.
When the meeting opened, Chair Wendee Brunish asked that Marcus address her social media post prior to public comment. Marcus said she first wished to explain a little about what the committee has been doing and went on to explain the committee’s purpose. She noted that when the County Council receives the committee’s recommendations it will vote on which recommendations it wants to accept and that it is just the committee’s job to make recommendations.
“County Council is obviously aware of what we’re doing. A number of people have contacted them about my Facebook post. I just want reiterate that it hasn’t gotten to them yet. It’s still just right here,” Marcus said. She added that the committee has been meeting since September and that she was a little dismayed that the committee hadn’t had a lot of public input because she thinks there are a lot of people who are interested in and passionate about the animal shelter issue.
She said there are three reasons she published her post on Facebook. One was to make the meetings more noticeable, she said. The second one was that she has been working with LAPD Sgt. Daniel Roberts who supervises the shelter and that taking into account the schedule and the amount of work that is supposed to be done by staff, that two additional staff members would solve a lot of problems at the shelter.
Marcus said one of the suggestions made at the committee’s last meeting by Brunish was that perhaps the shelter should be made into a transfer only shelter.
“That doesn’t mean closing the shelter. Strays would be held for the legal amount of time they’re required to be held and owner-surrendered animals would be sent to the Santa Fe Shelter and stray animals once the hold expired, they would be sent to the Santa Fe shelter. There wouldn’t be any more adoptions up here. Volunteer opportunities would be very limited and there wouldn’t be public outreach anymore,” she said. She said it is her understanding that Brunish has already talked to the Santa Fe Shelter about it and that she wanted “to let people know about it and get comments on it”.
Brunish said her one and only concern is that the animals are treated humanely.
“If you can’t treat them humanely here, we need to send them to where they can get that humane treatment. I don’t care what it looks like. I’m only concerned about humane treatment of the animals,” Brunish said. She said she doesn’t think it’s appropriate to discuss recommendations that the committee has not discussed or agreed upon. She said there are lots of channels for public input and that the committee will accept input in any shape or form until it has completed its job. She said a public survey has been conducted and an article published that described that survey and provided an email address to which anybody can send.
Brunish opened the floor for public comment saying she was limiting the number of speakers to five with three minutes each to speak. Members of the public addressed the importance of volunteerism and support for increased funding to staff the shelter appropriately.
Under public comment, County Attorney Alvin Leaphart who was seated in the front row of the audience said he just wanted to make it clear that subcommittees or advisory committees are not subject to the requirements of the Open Meetings Act.
“That in no way means you can’t advertise meetings, get the public in here, get as much public comment as you can, but you’re not a policy-making body and it’s clear from the statutory law as well as the compliance guide provided by the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office that it’s not a legal requirement to comply with the Open Meetings Act,” Leaphart said.
Following public comment, Brunish said she appreciated the public input.
“Just to give you a little bit of perspective though, I’ve been talking to a lot of people in the community. A lot of people say I don’t want to spend money on animals, I want to spend money on children. So we all need to understand that not everybody has the same priorities that we as animal lovers,” she said. She said she has been running an organization called Friends of the Shelter for some 20 years and that when she asks businesses or individuals for $100 to save an animals life, that the public would not believe how many people say no.
“There are a lot of people that don’t want to spend money on this, that this is not a priority for them. So we need to understand that your opinions are valuable and your opinions will be taken into account but because you’re all here tonight, you’re a very skewed sample of what people in this community think. So we all need to be aware that everybody in this community has a say about this,” Brunish said.
Marcus said one of the reasons she had posted on Facebook was because Brunish has her experiences and that they are perfectly valid but that Marcus’s experience is that Los Alamos is going to support more funding for the shelter. She noted that more than 60 people posted on her two Facebook posts that they wanted to see more funding for the shelter.
Asked what the timeframe would be for the committee to submit their recommendations to Council, Brunish said the committee has asked for an extension of three or four more months.
“What we felt after we got started was that we wanted to make a lot of different kinds of recommendations like about facilities, about policies, about procedures and we felt that making an initial recommendation about operation without all that other stuff to back it up didn’t make sense. So we have asked for an extension so that we can get a whole picture of everything and that will go along with supporting whatever the overall recommendation is about the operation.
LAPD Sgt. Daniel Roberts said the LAPD continues to operate the shelter and that it is not currently changing in any form – shutting down or anything of that nature. He said the shelter is currently hiring individuals to fill empty positions and completing the background check process.
“We are continuously giving animal care and continuously making sure that we are doing the best that we can. We have already implemented some of the ideas and experience from the committee. The police department has tried our best to maintain everything open as much as possible. I apologize that sometimes the shelter is closed but we are working on that. It takes a lot of time to get someone through background,” he said.
Board member Melissa Bartlett discussed the results of the public survey on the animal shelter (see separate story) as well as a survey or about a dozen volunteers.
As the committee moved on to discussion of budget for the shelter, Marcus asked Brunish why she feels the Santa Fe Shelter is so much more humane than the Los Alamos shelter. Brunish said that’s based on outside evaluators that have come in as well as the metrics they use for improvements as well as other information from animal shelter boards that indicates how a shelter should be operated.
Marcus said she was trying to narrow in on what Brunish found to be more humane about the Santa Fe shelter as opposed to the Los Alamos shelter.
Board member Jennifer Young said she went to the Santa Fe shelter with Brunish and that the shelter said they have the ability to have a contract with other shelters to take their animals. She said if Los Alamos was unable as a community to fully fund our shelter we could use a transfer program.
“That was the sum total of it. I can’t speak for Wendee but I don’t know if there was an assessment that it was more humane or not. It’s just in terms of staffing, clearly the staff were there. Better coverage,” she said. She added that the Santa Fe shelter has an entire behavioral program and that Los Alamos just doesn’t have the staff to make sure the animals go out first thing in the morning and go out at night.”
Marcus then said Brunish had talked about, recommended “or whatever word we want to use” but Brunish interrupted saying “not recommended”. When Marcus suggested the term “possible recommendation”, Brunish replied, “I didn’t do that either”. Marcus struggled to state what had actually occurred Brunish said the transfer program was an option that is actually available to the committee, that exploring options that are not available did not make sense.
As the discussion progressed, committee members indicated that their efforts had been somewhat impeded by their understanding that the Open Meetings Act applied to them. Brunish referred to a document she had prepared listing some possible recommendations for consideration saying she thought it would be helpful if the committee all had something to think about but that she was concerned about distributing it at this point.
Young said she thought the committee needed the ability to have open and honest discussion and went on to suggest the committee “clear the room”. She said there is room for misinterpretation of any proposed recommendations until the final list is drafted and that people could “get their hair on fire” for something the committee didn’t need to.
“Let’s get it right before we get people excited,” she said. “We’re not trying to hide anything; we’re just trying not to waste energy.”
Marcus suggested asking the Council for money as an interim measure however other committee members thought that was premature because there are so many other recommendations they feel are needed.
Some of the potential recommendations have been made public, so that’s the problem. Marcus suggested handing out the document and taking it back to the subcommittees to discuss and come back with their own ideas.
Young again asked to clear the room to talk about the document. Brunish then thanked everyone for coming, attendees left, and the meeting continued behind closed doors.