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Animal Advisory Commission tables HASS discussion for now

Tuesday, September 22, 2020 by Savana Dunning

With the Animal Advisory Commission still in disagreement over the recommendation that Austin join a decentralized shelter pilot program, commissioners decided to push the decision to October.

While commissioners were entirely in agreement over one item, voting unanimously to ask City Council to unfreeze hiring for all animal services positions and declare the department a fully essential service, the commission was more divided on the recommendation for Austin to join the Human Animal Support Services program and scheduled a special called meeting for Sept. 21 to specifically address the issue.

Local rescue nonprofit Austin Pets Alive! proposed the recommendation in June. Its parent organization, American Pets Alive!, developed HASS to address the accessibility issues of the physical impoundment-style animal shelter system that have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. HASS would decentralize animal services with remote services and an expanded foster care program in order to limit the number of animals being held at the shelter.

The commission has been discussing the proposal since June, having yet to come to agreement on whether a change of this scale is feasible for Austin’s shelter. In August, the commission established a work group to address the concerns of several commissioners. (View the work group’s meetings on the commission’s new YouTube channel.)

At the Sept. 21 meeting, commissioners Jo Anne Norton, Andrea Schwartz and Edward Flores all voiced their concerns over the proposal, saying there was not enough information or adequate animal services staff for Austin to successfully move forward with the pilot.

Flores was concerned about the level of accessibility for marginalized communities, suggesting that the city wait and see how the program works in Dallas and El Paso, which are already participants.

“We’re in such a state of unknown in so many things right now that people don’t know what they want to do, so to take a lot of these services away and/or add services that people are not used to and potentially really, really change something so quickly when we don’t know what’s happening next – I think this is why I keep asking, let me get some numbers, or let’s let this pilot program go through for El Paso or Dallas,” Flores said.

Norton said she felt the recommendation’s language asking for the city to “participate” in the program was “too strong.” Norton proposed a change to the language, recommending the city “explore the Human Animal Support Services Tier One pilot through a task force of city staff and citizens that will identify service objectives and determine if joining the HASS project will achieve those problems.”

“It’s a way to get something passed to alleviate a lot of the problems we’ve been having,” Norton said. “We’re recommending that we still talk about it, that we see enough good in it that it could be something worth committing to later.”

Flores said he would support the language change from “participate” to “explore,” as did Schwartz, who had been the most vocal opponent so far.

Commissioner Ryan Clinton opposed the language change, arguing that the Animal Advisory Commission is the group responsible for looking into the program and speaking to community members.

“We go into ‘explore’ and all of a sudden we haven’t done anything at all,” Clinton said.

Commissioner Craig Nazor agreed with Clinton in opposing the language change, arguing that participating in the program would help with the lack of resources for animal care in Austin and the current hiring freeze for animal services staff.

“If you don’t go in the direction you think you’re going to go, you’re just going to stand in the same place without any money,” Nazor said. “We can recommend they spend more money on the shelter, they probably won’t. We can recommend that they hire frozen positions, and they might not even do that. But we can recommend that they look into a way to do this that might be a little more efficient.”

Nazor said he would support the language change if it gets the proposal in front of City Council, calling the change “moving forward with one foot in a cement boot.” Commissioner Katie Jarl agreed with Nazor in settling for the proposed language change, but said participation in HASS upholds Austin’s image as an innovator in animal services. She called the language change “lip service to Council.”

“What I’m hearing today is we should let Dallas and El Paso lead the way on an innovative new welfare style, while we here in Austin sit back to see how other cities do it,” Jarl said. “One of the upsides to recommending Austin participate in HASS is that Austin can have a seat at the table right at the very beginning. We can be a part of a pilot program that’s forming and focusing what this innovative program may or may not be able to do.”

Nazor motioned for the commission to vote on the proposal “as stated,” with no language change, which was seconded by Commissioner Lisa Mitchell. The motion failed, needing seven votes in favor to pass. Five commissioners voted in favor (Nazor, David Lundstedt, Jarl, Mitchell and Clinton) and three opposed (Norton, Flores and Schwartz).

The commission decided to add more discussion on HASS to its October meeting, alongside another recommendation to revise Austin’s no-kill ordinance.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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