The possibility of privatizing the county’s animal shelter was on the agenda at Thursday night’s County Board of Commissioners meeting, but not in standard fashion. The notion of whether or not privatizing is a good idea was not the topic, but rather it was whether or not staff should have included commissioners in the discussion before sending out a call for bids. At the request of Commissioner Steve Brown, the Board was to discuss if staff had acted without authority to do so.
At the September 28 meeting, Commissioner Charles Rousseau asked that county staff explore the possibility of privatizing the shelter. County Administrator Steve Rapson said that staff would bring something back to the Board at the October 26 meeting.
While it never came back before the commissioners as promised, a RFP (Request For Proposals) did appear on the docket at department head meetings in November and December. On January 5, Rapson notified the commissioners via email that no formal offers were received and staff would continue to operate the shelter.
Rousseau responded to that email in a message of his own, “I didn’t realize we had put this out for solicitation. My comments and thoughts on this subject were designed to have us discuss further and agree to reach some kind of consensus as to the viability of such a proposal.”
While multiple rescue groups expressed varying degrees of interest in the RFP, none made a formal offer to the proposal crafted largely by current Animal Control Director Jerry Collins. A list of questions, acquired by Fayette Newspapers, listed some of their concerns. Chief among them was resistance to the current euthanasia policy that allows for healthy, adoptable animals to be put down when certain space and time limits are met. There were also questions regarding many basic policies (or lack thereof) such as treatment of sick animals, staffing, Collins’ oversight, and whether or not the new operator would even stay in the same facilities.
The topic came back before the commissioners Thursday night because Brown was surprised to find out from a resident that the RFP had already come and gone.
“I got a call from a citizen later on who called to chide me for how poorly the RFP was written and couldn’t believe that I would send something through that looked like the document did,” he said of the proposal that included a smiley emoticon with the page on parvo policy and also initially included an organizational chart that was badly outdated. “I had to admit I didn’t know what the heck she was talking about.”
Brown, who called animal welfare and animal shelter issues the biggest issues in the county in 2017, was disappointed that the commissioners had no input in the process. Brown, who worked closely with advocates during discussions of the county’s animal ordinances, and Rousseau, who proposed examining the pros and cons of privatization, were not involved at all.
“All I had on this agenda was to decide what in the heck we’re going to do because we ended up in a quagmire where we had the county administrator acting without proper authority,” Brown said. “All I’m asking is what does the Board want to do because the way it was done was improper. It was not the way it was supposed to be done. We were promised on September 22 that something was going to come back to us October 26. It didn’t come back to us, and the RFP went out.”
County Administrator Steve Rapson apologized to Rousseau for not consulting him during the process and said in the future staff would ask for a vote from the Board for a firm direction before acting.
“I certainly apologize to you if we misread your intent because maybe you did want to look at something.”
Commissioners Randy Ognio and Charles Oddo took issue with Brown questioning the authority of Rapson and his staff.
“Never in the history since I have been on the Board have we ever voted on an RFP or had input to an RFP,” said Ognio. “They had the authority. It may not have moved exactly as we thought.”
“This is so totally disingenuous. We have never, ever weighed in on the creation of an RFP ever,” said Oddo. “To disparage the job they have done over the last five years is just ridiculous.
“They have not exceeded their authority, they have performed exactly how they have since you have been here and I have been here.”
Brown countered that the other cases where RFPs where sent out by staff were because the Board had approved the projects necessitating them like stormwater projects, public works supplies, and radio system upgrades. The Board doesn’t design the projects, but they approve them, he said.
“You can’t do these things out of thin air, you need Board direction for those moves and expenditures,” he said. “Any project that you’re going to do, you need to bring it through us, period. And you know that.
“Coming up with a plan, a vision of what we would like to see, that’s our job. That’s why the people elected us to be their eyes and ears and represent them in these things and come up with a plan that’s suitable for the county.”
Turning talk back to the RFP itself, Stephanie Cohran, President of Fayette Humane Society, spoke briefly about her involvement in the process. While she offered some suggestions, she believed the county was only working on a draft of the document.
“The version that I got, I did not know that was the actual portion that was going to be going out in the RFP. I thought it was our starting point, the opening point of discussion,” she said. “When I saw that was what actually went out, at that point it’s too late.”
Cohran noted she shared her concerns with rescue groups involved in other privatized shelters and they confirmed her thoughts that Fayette’s proposal was too limiting. Some of the policies dictated in the proposal, such as euthanizing healthy animals should the shelter reach set capacity numbers, were a deal breaker.
“They were given a lot more leeway in being able to run their portion of the facility, as opposed to being dictated to.”
Brown shared that he heard the same things from other local advocates.
“I have heard from some of your associates that when they looked at it, it was so restrictive they said we don’t even need to touch this because we’re going to get in trouble if we do this. We can’t make that work.”
In defending Rapson and his staff, Ognio made it clear shelter privatization was dead in the water before it started.
“I think they were trying to do due diligence and keep us from wasting time talking about something that wasn’t going to happen anyway.”
Likewise, Rapson noted that Animal Control Director Jerry Collins, who put the RFP together using DeKalb’s previous privatization RFP as a model, was opposed to privatization, but would put it together nonetheless because of interest from Rousseau.
“Jerry did not want to privatize the system, and we were doing that because, we felt, we had clear Board direction,” said Rapson.
Oddo sought to stand up for the shelter staff itself.
“I’m not really inclined towards privatization,” he said. “I don’t know why we’re pushing it so hard.”
Rousseau cautioned Oddo that he was off-base on his interpretation.
“As stated in the record, my suggestion was not to replace staff, it was to look at best options. I want to be very clear. Those are dangerous things when we say that,” he said. “I was asking for, and I can speak for myself, for us to look at all available options since this was a hot-button issue of 2017. When you say I don’t know why were pushing it, I’m pushing process. I’m not pushing whatever the outcome might be.”
Brown asked for the opportunity to bring together a group of interest parties to look at privatization options to bring back for the Board to consider.
“Let’s create a big roundtable and give everybody a shot. That’s all I ask,” he said. “If it gets voted down, it gets voted down, and if nobody responds, nobody responds, then we gave everybody a chance.”
Ognio, who in July tacked on a motion to kill the work being done between advocates and the county despite the ordinance work not being on the agenda, took issue with Brown’s motion to bring people together to talk privatization options.
“That’s not even on the agenda to be discussed,” he said.
Brown’s motion failed 1-3.