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Citizens Decry 'Muzzle' on Healdsburg Animal Shelter Volunteers

Shelter volunteers, donors plead for help from Healdsburg City Council in lifting "secrecy" on finances, governance.

 

More than a half-dozen Healdsburg Animal Shelter volunteers and donors pleaded Tuesday night for Healdsburg City Council to step in to "end the secrecy" over shelter finances and to intervene in what they said was an oppressive crackdown on free speech.

"We're out of options," said Jan Stanley, one of nine people to address City Council during Tuesday night's public meeting. "It's a sad state -- we don't know where to turn."

At immediate issue is a deadline Sunday for shelter volunteers to sign a volunteer manual sent to them by the shelter management. The document, if signed, would prohibit the volunteer from making any public statements about the shelter in the media or in any other public forum. If a volunteer refuses to sign, he or she will not be allowed to continue work at the shelter.

"I am forced to leave the shelter rather than sign away my First Amendment rights," said Beth DeCoss, a 10-year shelter volunteer who said her question to the shelter board on finances for the new shelter went unanswered. "I hope City Council can get the information and end the secrecy."

Healdsburg Mayor Gary Plass asked city staff to contact the shelter to see if they would attend a public meeting next month to give City Council a report on operations and finances.

The shelter is a private non-profit agency, but the city pays the shelter more than $100,000 annually for animal control services.

 "We should play mediator in some fashion," Plass said. "We do need to be involved -- the shelter is an important part of the community."

Volunteer Ken Dalton requested the City Council demand the shelter give the city access to its financial records -- in particular, how money contributed for the new $3.5 million shelter on Westside Drive was spent.

The new shelter sits unfinished and unoccupied, while public demands for disclosure on its financial status have gone unanswered, Dalton said.

"Our city tax dollars are being paid to the shelter (for animal control services)," Dalton said. "I request that the city cease all funding to the animal shelter unless they give complete access to financial records."

Longtime volunteer and donor Carol Noack said she also will refuse to sign the new volunteer manual and so will be forced to leave the shelter.

"This recalls a quote a friend of mine who was touring Russia sent me about life under (Prime Minister Vladimir) Putin,"  Noack told the council.

"'If you think it, don't say it, and if you say it, don't write it, and if you write it, don't sign it -- and if you sign it, then you're bye-bye,'" she said.

Noack and others said a pattern of withholding information has led to an atmosphere of secrecy and mystery.

"The first alarm was at the Jan. 11 meeting when volunteers were barred from speaking out," Noack said. "The second alarm was when they closed all board meetings to the public.

"Now," Noack said, "I am forced to leave for refusing to sign a document that I can make no public comment without the CEO's permission."

Stanley said she attended the Jan. 11 board meeting where public comment was curtailed and no questions were allowed. Afterward, Stanley said she sent in a question to be answered -- as Board President Kathleen McCaffrey promised -- with all the other questions on the shelter website by the end of January.

Her one question was not answered, Stanley said.

 "I simply wanted to know what's being done with the money, and why this beautiful facility is still shut down," Stanley said.

"I know the contractor was let go and the architect is out of the country, but what is the current status?" she said. "We need to know what mistakes were made so we can correct them and move forward."

Denny Drowty, a volunteer, said he was most shocked by a clause in the volunteer manual that gives consent for the shelter management to run a background check on any volunteer at any time.

"I take major offense at the autocratic nature of this document," said Drowty, who called the ban on public comment a "muzzle clause."

"This shelter is a huge community asset, with a lot of community people involved," he said. "There is so much negative energy now -- we've got to turn this around."

Volunteer Mike DeCoss and former board member George Dutton pointed to what they said were violations of the shelter bylaws that said the board must have a minimum of five members.

The board now has four members, after seven board members quit in 2011 -- some of them complaining publicly about shelter management and governance.

Dutton, who was unable to attend Tuesday night but who sent his remarks in writing, said he wondered if the lack of a quorum on the board would jeopardize the shelter's non-profit tax status. He also questioned who would be responsible for paying taxes as the new shelter sits unfinished.

"Construction on the new shelter has been stalled since the end of November," said Dutton, former board treasurer and project manager for the new building. "When I resigned on Dec. 1, all the accounts were reconciled and I sent a statement of all the finances as of the end of October.

"Why have there been no further reports on the financials?" he said.

Volunteer Madeline Wallace, a former shelter board member, said the secrecy was the thing that bothered her the most.

"It is the community's tax dollars and donations that created and sustained Healdsburg Animal Shelter," she said. "Why should how their dollars are being spent be a mystery?

"Why is it now also a mystery [about] the final dollars needed to finish the new shelter?" Wallace said.

Volunteer Jody Wilson said she and her husband toured the new shelter with executive director Julie Seal, whose title is now listed in the volunteer manual as chief executive officer.

Wilson said she "found much work to be done and redone," she said. "I don't think the architect who designed it knew anything about dogs and cats.

"I think I could have designed that building better myself," Wilson told City Council. "We need a new shelter as soon as possible -- the animals need your help."

To read a copy of the volunteer manual and contract, click on the attached PDF files.

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