Wexford County Taxpayers Could See a “Split” Animal Control Millage, Allowing Animal Care to be a Separate Entity

Sunny is one of many amazing cats up for adoption at the Wexford County Animal Shelter

Sunny is one of many amazing cats up for adoption at the Wexford County Animal Shelter. Photo credit: Sisters Studio

After a tumultuous 18 months at the Wexford County Animal Shelter, Wexford County is looking to take a new approach on an upcoming millage request concerning the animal shelter – splitting a millage request into two separate areas, animal control and animal care. This new request is being looked into at the request of Crystal Johnson, treasurer and co-founder of Animal Advocates of Wexford. She has been one of many volunteers and animal advocates that have gone to county meetings and voiced her opinion on accounting inaccuracies and a need for a change in the management of the shelter so that the cats and dogs are properly taken care of.

In January of 2013, allegations arose from a former Wexford County animal shelter attendant, Kathy Rodgers Dennis, about improper euthanization and missing money. The use of improper euthanasia techniques was also echoed in statements by another former employee at the shelter and several trustees. In addition, it appears that Animal Control Officer Smith admitted to violating State law in interviews during a criminal investigation on December 6, 2012 with the County as well as an interview by the Michigan Dept. of Agriculture. Detective Penney asked ACO Smith about the euthanization of the animals and how it works. He asked where she injected the animals when they were killed. She said, “It’s normally an IC (intracardiac) injection, in the heart.” When asked if she injected the animal with anything else, she said, “occasionally, we have to tranquilizer an animal but very rarely.” When investigated by the Michigan Department of Agriculture, their report on ACO Smith indicated, “I asked ACO Smith to explain this note. ACO Smith stated that Sodium Pentobarbital was used as a sedative then an additional amount was used for an IC (heart sticking). I advised ACO Smith that the use of Sodium Pentobarbital injected IM was a non-acceptable sedation practice. I asked ACO Smith if this was taught to her during her certification trainings; ACO Smith stated no.” During the county’s criminal investigation, former shelter worker Kris Corwin was interviewed and said that there was limited sedation with the animals. She said, “…back when I was there, I would say 75% were the one step process.”

Even though it appears that many of Dennis’ allegations have corroboration with other witnesses and statements made by the ACOs, the prosecutor has said that no criminal charges would be filed (as of March 2014). Additionally, no disciplinary action has ever been taken against ACO Michelle Smith or ACO Jessica Williams, even after the shelter was fined by the Michigan Department of Agriculture for not complying with the State law.

Because many animal advocates and Wexford County taxpayers are unhappy with the ACOs involvement in animal care and the lack of oversight from Sheriff’s Department, an animal control millage that removes the care of the animals from the Sheriff’s Department would be more likely to pass and it appears that the Board of Commissioners understands that. Previous changes in the animal control ordinance allows for a non-profit to operate the shelter and animal advocates who have been on the front lines of this issue since January of 2013 see this is as the best option for the health and welfare of the animals at the shelter. Crystal Johnson agrees, “By splitting the millage, voters will have a better idea of the money going to animal control to enforce the 1919 Dog law, and the money for animal welfare. It will also open more doors for grants specific to animal welfare and groups capable of offering their services to the animal welfare operations of the Wexford County Shelter.” 

According to the County, the funding for animal control will run out sometime in 2015. The Board of Commissioners approved a motion to consider a 0.25 millage which would split up with 0.08 going to animal control operations and 0.17 going towards animal welfare and care. Similar to how animal control is set up with the Cherryland Humane Society in Traverse City, an arrangement could be made where the county pays for the boarding of the animals while they are on their stray hold – and then the non-profit would take over the care of the animals after that once they are released by the County.

Although volunteers at the Wexford County Animal Shelter have greatly increased adoptions and made the conditions for the shelter animals much better, they are unpaid volunteers with families of their own, medical issues and other obligations. They shouldn’t be relied on to take on the brunt of the work in caring for and saving the lives of the animals. The shelter needs workers who can be at the shelter at all times and are able to make their own policies regarding euthanizations, adoptions, cleaning and much more. Right now, if a volunteer sees an issue such as one that was reported to Pet Friends Magazine in June regarding the cats not having clean food, water and litter for the evening – the volunteers have no authority to get the problems resolved. Having someone besides the Sheriff’s Department being responsible for animal care would also insure that the state mandated spay/neuter funds that are received are ONLY used for spaying and neutering as the law requires. Currently, there is no evidence of adherence to this law by the County and Johnson is currently working with the county to ensure that their inaccurate record keeping in their budget is corrected.

The millage will be going to the Board’s Finance Committee on Thursday, July 10th to be considered and then will go back to the regular Board of Directors for approval. You can email the Commissioners here with your opinion on this new millage idea. If approved, the millage would appear on the November 4th election ballot.

With the lack of oversight by the Sheriff’s Department into animal shelter activities, many thing slip through the cracks. At the top of the chain of command is Sheriff Gary Finstrom, then Undersheriff Trent Taylor and then there is Lieutenant Denison who is assigned to be the direct supervisor of the shelter. However, upon reading the depositions that were done pertaining to the Whistleblower lawsuit against the County by Kathy Rodgers Dennis, information has been uncovered that the Department lacks the knowledge of Michigan animal shelter law and the Sheriff also appears to not being interested in reading reports to find out what happened at the shelter as it pertains to the details of several investigations. While Kathy Rodgers Dennis worked at the shelter, she only saw Lt. Denison at the actual shelter one time. It appears, from reading through information FOIA-ed from the County, that the ACOs, and not the supervisors above them, are the ones in control of how the shelter operates on a daily basis.

The following statements by County employees are taken from the Whistleblower lawsuit against the County and also from the criminal investigation done by the County as well as the Dept. of Agriculture’s investigation. This information is being posted to give you an insight on the operations of the shelter. Although some questions and answers may have been skipped to get to the answers more quickly, none of the statements were edited.

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REGARDING MICHELLE SMITH’S INVOLVEMENT IN EUTHANIZATION (Criminal Investigation)

Q: Okay. And where do you inject the animal in?

ACO MICHELLE SMITH (A): It’s normally an IC injection, in the heart

Q: In the heart?

A: Yes

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Q: Do you inject the animals with anything else?

A: Occasionally, we have to tranquilizer an animal, but very rarely.

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REGARDING MICHELLE SMITH’S CONFLICTING STATEMENTS OF WHO EUTHANIZES ANIMALS and HOW:

Criminal Report, First Interview

Smith: Jessie (Jessica Williams) hasn’t gone through the class yet but she can euthanasia under my name

Q: Andy Noaker, he?

A: He euthanasia under my name

Q: And Kathy Dennis is probably not because she is part time?

A: Correct

Q: Okay

A: And it’s always been fine for them to euthanasia under my name

Q: Okay

A: But…

Q: Under, do you have to supervise that or do you just give the?

A: We, I supervise them, training at a training level, when they’re able to do it themselves, they do it themselves.

Q: Okay. by themselves?

A: Yes

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Criminal Report, Second Interview

Q: When you euthanize an animal, who helped you, who assisted you, was it just you or was it somebody else or who would?

A: It’s myself and Jessica

Q: Okay, if you had to put a percentage on it, you know, 70% of the time I did it by myself or 90% of the time I did it with Jessica?

A: 90% of the time I did it with Jessica.

Q: So you and Jessica, 90% of the time?

A: Uh huh

Q: What about the other, we’ll say, 10% of the time?

A: Those are times I do it myself, she helps me sedate the animal and then she has to leave for something, so.

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Information from the Dept. of Agriculture Investigation:

From email dated February 22, 2013, written by Jeffrey Galsterer (MDA):

“All, I visited this shelter yesterday and spoke with the director Michele Smith. In the visit we discussed humane euthanasia as per the AVMA Euthanasia Guidelines. As far as I can gather from the interview with Ms. Smith (who is the only staff member who performs euthanasia in this shelter) the shelter is operating in accordance with these guidelines. I was able to review a database of 3115 records dating back to 4-24-2007 that confirmed Ms. Smith’s claim that she was providing tranquilizer to sedate animals prior to euthanizing via intracardiac injection.”

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REGARDING THE SHERIFF NOT BEING FAMILIAR WITH THE POLICIES OF THE ANIMAL SHELTER: (Deposition)

Q: And in fact, there is a — are you familiar with the policies of the – the sheriff’s dept. policies for the animal shelter?

A: I have probably read them but I’m not familiar with them, no.

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REGARDING THE UNDERSHERIFF NOT KNOWING MICHIGAN ANIMAL SHELTER LAW: (Deposition)

ATTORNEY (Q): So do you have any familiarity with the rules and regulations that apply to the operation of the shelter?

UNDERSHERIFF TRENT TAYLOR (A): Very little. Lieutenant Denison, once again, like I said, was director supervisor of that.

Q: I would assume since this lawsuit came up and this issue came up, you may have more now than you had before understanding of the rules that apply to the shelter?

A: I’m no expert, if that’s what you’re getting at.

——————————————————————————————————————-

REGARDING THE SHERIFF NOT REVIEWING THE CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION OF THE SHELTER: (Deposition)

Q: “I assume if there were violations of those policies, you would want to know about it?

SHERIFF FINSTROM (A): After the (criminal) investigation is completed.

Q: Did you review the investigation of anyone else?

A: I have never reviewed the investigation. I have not looked at that document.

Q: The investiation report you’ve never looked at?

A: No.

——————————————————————————————————————-

Q: You told me earlier that you have never reviewed the Wexford County Sheriff’s Investigative Report for Complaint 2834-12, which has been loosely described as the “criminal investigation” in this manner; is that true?

SHERIFF FINSTROM (A): Yes

Q: Why not?

A: There was no need for me to

Q: There was no need for the Sheriff?

A: The prosecutor reviewed it, the Michigan State Police reviewed it, the prosecutor reviewed the Michigan State’s review. There was no indications of criminal activity, therefore I don’t need to review it.

Q: So you had access to it?

A: Yup.

——————————————————————————————————————-

Q: So let’s talk about this report a bit. Did you know that Detective Penny had been assigned to do this report?

A: Yes.

Q: Have you never spoken to him about the findings?

A: No.

Q: Has he ever described to you any of his findings?

A: No.

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REGARDING THE SHERIFF NOT REVIEWING THE MICHIGAN DEPT. OF AGRICULTURE INVESTIGATION OF THE SHELTER: (Deposition)

Q: So at that point (when Dept of Ag investigation complete) you can go forward and try to get to the bottom of these allegations (by Dennis) yourself, talk to your employees, see what’s going on, true?

A: I did not do that.

Q: No, but you could have?

A: But I did not do that.

Q: Is it true that there was nothing stopping you from doing it?

A: It is true there was nothing stopping me from doing it.

——————————————————————————————————————-

Q: Did you review the Michigan Dept. of Agriculture Investigator’s Report?

A: No

——————————————————————————————————————-

REGARDING LT. DENISON’S ROLE IN SUPERVISING THE ANIMAL SHELTER: (Deposition)

Lt. Richard Denison (A): I oversee in a supervisory manner. I oversee the day to day operations.

Q: When you say in a supervisory manner, what do you mean by that?

A: I’m not an Animal Control Officer. I make sure that financial – if there’s any financial issues, such as obtaining equipment, supplies, that billing goes through me. I oversee the billing aspect of that. If the officers need equipment, I go through the process of obtaining equipment for the Shelter. And any work-related task, I guess, that belongs to the Animal Control. I oversee. So basically I’d be a stepping stone for the operation of the Shelter to make sure its operational.

——————————————————————————————————————-

Q: How about employee reviews for the Animal Control Division? Who does that?

A: What does – what are you referring to as a “review”?

Q: Performance evaluations.

A: We haven’t done those in a considerable amount of time.

Q: When they were done, was it you?

A: I did – no. The Law Enforcement Division was done by their sergeants. Animal Control didn’t have a program for that.

Q: It’s never had one?

A: I’ve never seen one, no, not for the Animal Control.

Q: And you didn’t understand that you had any obligation to evaluate the employees?

A: Not – as for Animal Control, no. The Law Enforcement Division had documentation that they would conduct those – I don’t remember if it was a policy or a standard operating procedure, but they no longer do them.

——————————————————————————————————————-

Q: And tell me everything you do to make sure that the conduct at the Animal Control Shelter and among the employees of the Animal Control Division is consistent with State law and County policy?

A: Outside of the day to day operations and meeting with my Animal Control officers who report to me at the Sheriff’s Office during their briefing aspect of it, that’s pretty much it, unless something is reported to me.

Q: So the way that you seek – or the way that you make sure that the conduct and activities of the Animal Control Shelter are complying with State law and County policy is that you meet with the ACOs on a regular basis and ask them questions about the operation of the Shelter to assure yourself; is that what you’re telling me?

A: The Shelter was there long before I’ve taken this position, and it’s been operational for a considerable amount of time.

——————————————————————————————————————-

A: I meet – and part of the requirement is that Animal Control checks in with me. I’m not there every day, so, no, do I meet with Animal Control every day? No. When the – when the opportunity arises that I can meet with them or reference any issue at the Shelter, I do so.

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REGARDING THE SHERIFF’S PUBLIC STATEMENTS ABOUT KATHY DENNIS’ ALLEGATIONS AGAINST THE SHELTER: (Deposition)

Q: So I’d like to know what facts you are basing the statement on that her (Dennis) allegations were not true?

A: My memory was that I had information regarding the euthanasia issue. It’s not on this report. I don’t know where I got the information, but that is the information i used to make that statement.

Q: And you believe it came from the Michigan Dept. of Agriculture?

A: Yes; yes.

Q: And now if the records of the Dept. of Agriculture indicated that they have taken no action as of January 28th, had conducted no investigation, had reviewed no records—

A: Then I was wrong.

Q: So if it turns out that the Dept. of Agriculture had not yet conducted its investigation, then the statement that you made that she was wrong, that your office complies with state law, that she’s a disgruntled former employee, you’re telling me today that you had no basis to make that statement?

A: No, I’m telling you, and I’ve told you a number of times, those are my opinions and I can voice my opinion.

A: But as we sit here today you can’t point to any evidence that you had seen to support your statement that her allegations were untrue?

Q: I would need to go through all your paperwork to look at the USDA and see what the dates are on those.

——————————————————————————————————————-

Q: And so your statement that what she (Dennis) was saying was not true was inaccurate/ true?

A; Which portion of the statement?

Q: “Sheriff Gary Finstrom says that ‘Kathy Dennis says the shelter illegally kills animals without proper sedation, and Sheriff Gary Finstrom says that statement is not true.” That was inaccurate, wasn’t it?

A: That portion of it may be inaccurate.

——————————————————————————————————————-

A: I’m saying that some of the statements she (Dennis) made were upheld.

Q: Upheld, meaning they were true?

A: They were proven true.

Q: Yes.

A: And some of them were false.

Q: Which ones were false?

A: The money.

Q: And what leads you to believe that?

A: There’s no proof that any money was missing from either the cash thing you referenced or the Humane Society. You’ve not demonstrated anything in that report that I just saw today.

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