What caused rift between the Humane Society and county?

What’s behind the turmoil between the Humane Society of Vero Beach and Indian River County that has sparked angry words, threatened the ability of the county to handle stray animals and left both parties feeling blindsided over the past few months?

The dustup started when, after a cordial 25-year relationship, the nonprofit organization surprised the county two months ago by announcing it wasn’t renewing its current 3-year agreement with the county to provide “animal sheltering services,” an agreement due to expire April 30.

According to a Jan. 16 letter sent to county Director of Emergency Services Tad Stone by Humane Society Executive Director Kate Meghji and Board President Susan Smith, the decision was made because “a lack of shared vision for the animals of Indian River County with County staff is too much of a barrier to overcome.”

The letter added that, with a new executive director at the helm, “improved shelter standards and operations to meet best practices,” and a new leadership team of “animal welfare and nonprofit experts,” the Human Society is moving in a different direction.

But why now? What vision? What barrier? The problem seems to boil down to … cats.

Although not specifically mentioned in the Humane Society’s letter, the major issue that has sparked the recent discord and taken up hours and hours of County Commission meeting time is, in fact, free-roaming cats.

The Humane Society is a proponent of, but does not currently conduct, a controversial free-roaming cat control program called Trap Neuter Vaccinate Release (TNVR), considered by many animal welfare groups the most humane way of reducing and eventually eliminating free-roaming cat populations.

Most commissioners vehemently oppose the program, citing the decimation of thousands of birds, the health dangers free-ranging cats present to humans, and the problem of individuals dumping unwanted cats in other people’s neighborhoods. They have been lobbied passionately by members of the public and the Pelican Island Audubon Society who oppose the TNVR program.

With just two months before the agreement expired, the county found itself facing the task of quickly finding somewhere else to go with the hundreds of animals currently being taken to the Humane Society shelter by Animal Control each month. Staff began looking for property where a facility could be created and gathering cost data; and Stone shot off a letter to Meghji seeking more time.

The move, Stone wrote with significant understatement, “leaves the County in a precarious position for the enforcement of local and state laws regarding animal control and enforcement issues.”

He then asked if the Humane Society would consider extending the contract for an additional six months, while the two parties “collectively work to address any outstanding issues and adjustment to the local ordinance that may be amenable to both parties.”

The Humane Society was willing to discuss an extension and Meghji said she and Smith had what she thought was a cordial and productive meeting with County Administrator Jason Brown and Commission Chair Susan Adams in February. After the meeting, at Stone’s request, she put together a draft document outlining terms for a six-month extension to be used as a starting point for further discussion before any final decisions were made.

Stone sent the memorandum of understanding to Brown who passed it on to commissioners “for Board consideration and to begin discussions with the Humane Society of Vero Beach for the housing of animals for a limited period of time.”

That was when things took another bad turn.

Expecting further discussion with the county before a final draft document went to the commission, Meghji was surprised to learn, at the last minute, that the preliminary memorandum of understanding would be considered by the commission at its next meeting on March 10.

Smith and Humane Society Director of Government Relations Michele Quigley told the commissioners repeatedly at the meeting that the current MOU was only meant to be a draft, “a stop-gap” to maintain vital animal services during the agreed-upon six-month extension, during which time they hoped to discuss options and come to an understanding going forward. It was not meant to be a long-term agreement.

Several commissioners said they would never sign off on any agreement that left open the possibility the Humane Society might initiate a TNVR program. Commissioners Joe Flescher and Peter O’Bryan repeatedly asked whether Smith and Quigley could assure the commission no such program would be started during the six-month extension period. Neither woman would give them that assurance.

Commissioner Adams reminded her fellow commissioners of the $1-million-plus cost of establishing and operating a county shelter estimated by county staff, and noted that, unless more staff was hired, the cat situation would not be solved anyway.

She said she had zero interest in moving ahead with plans for a pricey county shelter until she had a lot more solid data. Zorc agreed, saying he’d rather spend that much money on “something more significant than this.”

Ultimately, the board declined to vote on the MOU, but did vote 3-2 to move forward with a purchase and/or lease agreement on a .56-acre property with a warehouse and office/shop at 210 Old Dixie as a shelter location

Meghji was angry after the March 10 meeting. “We showed up and all they talked about was the cat issue. It felt like we got sandbagged. We were taken by surprise. I was disappointed and it was very clear to me that the outcome was pre-determined … we couldn’t give the leadership the full picture.”

A week later, tempers had cooled, and the second chapter of the County/Humane Society dust-up, at the March 17 county commission meeting, was a shorter, less heated and more productive.

The Humane Society agreed to a revised MOU, which states it will “not operate, formulate or create a TNVR program during the 6-month agreement extension,” and that, once the “legal hold period” is over, the disposition of an animal is at the full discretion of the Humane Society.

With that, the Commission voted 4-1 to sign the agreement, with Commissioner Bob Solari the lone opponent of the deal. It then voted 3-2 in favor of scraping the attempt to buy the Old Dixie property, with Zorc, Adams and Fletcher on one side and Commissioners Solari and Peter O’Bryan on the other.

Under the revised agreement the county will pay the Humane Society $36,000 a month to take in up to 400 animals. That is about $5,000 more per month than the county had budgeted for the service and $10,000 per month than it had actually been spending.

The compromise came, in part, because both parties agreed it was best to put the issue on the back burner in order to focus on COVID-19 issues.

Brown stated his fervent hope that, by the time the extension period is over, six months from May 1, the parties will have come to an agreement, “I don’t want to see us doing this same thing six months from now.”

Meghji was happy the March 17 discussion was “much more positive,” and now hopes to continue the Humane Society’s longtime positive relationship with the county, “for the benefit of the residents and animals.”

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