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Shelter leader gets vote of no confidence from commission

Tuesday, June 14, 2022 by Chad Swiatecki

The city’s Animal Advisory Commission has passed a vote of no confidence in Don Bland, chief animal services officer and the director of the Austin Animal Center.

At Monday’s meeting the commission voted 8-1, with two abstentions, to approve a 17-point resolution outlining the ways they feel Bland has underperformed in his role since taking the job in 2019. According to the resolution, Bland routinely failed to provide the commission with accurate and complete data about shelter operations, mismanaged actions related to the city’s stray-hold ordinance, delivered monthly reports that were “confusing, misleading, incomplete, and lack transparency,” and alienated partner organizations that help care for animals with special behavioral needs.

The initial resolution didn’t mention Bland alone, calling out the actions of AAC’s leadership team, but commissioners opted to amend the resolution and limit its focus to Bland’s role as leader of the agency.

Before the vote, a series of volunteers and former staffers shared their comments about how their involvement and satisfaction with working at the shelter has fallen drastically in recent years, with some pointing out how the curtailing of weekend hours made it difficult to provide needed services to prospective adopters.

Several commissioners expressed reluctance to make their concerns with Bland and AAC public, while others said the issues have been well known for a year or more.

“This is not the kind of thing that makes anybody happy, but I was on the commission when Dorinda (Pulliam) ran the shelter and I don’t want to see us go back to that,” Commissioner Lisa Mitchell said. “I’m sorry if anybody is surprised by this type of resolution being suggested, but in looking at an email I sent to my Council member’s office in August of last year, I talked about the problems we’ve had, and it wasn’t the first time we’ve had to discuss them. I’m sorry if anybody feels blindsided or surprised, but this has been a long time coming and this failure to get data and the information we need to make crucial decisions about budget, I don’t know what the way forward is at this point.”

A motion to table the resolution and conduct more research into the shelter and Bland’s role was unsuccessful, with Commissioner Paige Nilson arguing that some of the points in the critique could be inaccurate and might strain the commission’s credibility.

“Even if we want to tell City Council we have a big problem, we better be extremely careful in our words. We want to be believed and we want to be accurate, and this resolution should have the opportunity to be vetted far more thoroughly and discussed with major back and forth,” she said. “I can see there are multiple inaccuracies in it, which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tell City Council there’s a big problem, but we need to be accurate when we do that.”

When asked about the commission’s role and its ability to level serious claims against those running the shelter, Chair Craig Nazor said Council needs to be aware that policies such as the city’s conversion into a no-kill city are at risk of failing.

“I’ve talked this over with some City Council members, and the way I understand it is the big deal in Austin was no-kill, and that was a Council-mandated policy. As a commission we are the eyes and ears of our appointers and we report back to City Council on how their policy is being executed,” he said. “If we begin to get nervous about the possibility of no-kill going away … we’re not telling City Council what to do, but if you vote for this you are telling City Council we have a big problem and this is what we’re concerned about.”

Update: Following the meeting, the city released a statement on the resolution noting the shelter had maintained its no-kill status while remaining within its budget, with an overall save rate of 97 percent in 2021. The city also defended the practice of  transporting animals to rescues in northern states as a “key component” of no-kill. In that statement, Bland commented: 

“We are committed to keeping Austin a No-Kill city and have implemented several programs over the last few years to maintain No-Kill… Right now, shelters across the United States are struggling with medium/large dogs, decreased adoptions, and decreased foster/volunteer numbers. The leadership team at Austin Animal Center has a combined 124 years in animal welfare and has helped the shelter navigate a global pandemic and national hiring shortage while remaining well above 95% save rate. We are focused on continuing this important work in the months and years to come.”



Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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