Surveying a packed Brownwood City Council audience that spilled out the council chamber’s doors, Mayor Stephen Haynes prepared to address the controversy that had drawn Tuesday morning’s gathering.
The controversy surrounds the Corinne T. Smith Animal Center, which is governed by a divided board including a recently installed board president, Debra Dixon. Dixon has sparked criticism of her leadership style from some board members and others.
After comments from Haynes and numerous other speakers that included board members Stephen Finch and his wife Veronica, Anna Day and board vice president Sherry Howry —all of whom have been critical of Dixon’s leadership style — council members went into executive session to confer with City Attorney Pat Chesser, then reconvened into open session. Former animal center director Freda Day was among the speakers.
Council members authorized Chesser to send a letter to Dixon and the rest of the board stating, based on what the council heard Tuesday, it appears the center is not being operated in accordance with industry standards. It also appears the board has at times operated outside the Texas Open Meeting Act, the letter is to state.
The letter will give the board 60 days to address issues. If the board ignores the letter, the council will have the option to withhold city funding to the center and and/or terminate the city’s lease with the center, Haynes said.
Neither Dixon nor Butch Lawson, who was recently named the center’s director, were present at the council meeting. Dixon did not respond to messages from the Bulletin seeking comment.
“Regardless of what you all are saying, it needs to happen,” Finch said. “It needs to happen just for the good of the shelter.” Finch, who with his wife Veronica was voted onto the animal center board last month, said some of the board is aligned with Dixon and other board members are not.
Haynes said issues the center needs to address are outlined in a seven-page report from an Austin-based group called American Pets Alive, which recently visited the center. The council may add additional issues, Haynes said.
Addressing the controversy, Haynes said, “It’s my understanding that he city of Brownwood has not operated an animal shelter for many years as they have delegated that to the Corinne T. Smith animal Center, which is largely run by volunteers. I know there is some paid staff. The City of Brownwood has been very very fortunate for many years because a large group of volunteers has given their time, a large number of contributors have given their money to a cause that they believe in, which is the care of our animals and pets.
“ … I know we’ve got a controversy now. I know we need to deal with the controversy. But don’t lose sight of the fact that for 20-plus years the volunteers have done an excellent job regardless of what side of the current controversy you may be on.”
For the first nine years he was mayor, Haynes said, he heard nothing about the animal center. Within the past 12 to 18 months, the mayor said, he began hearing about conditions including overcrowding and lack of cleanliness.
There could be any number of reasons for that,” Haynes said. “It could be underfunded, which may be partially an issue with the city. It could be a management issue. It could simply be that our ordinances, as they exist, are not discouraging overpopulation. Maybe we need to change our ordinances.”
Because the city has been largely “hands off” with the animal center, Haynes said, “it would be very hard for us to jump in at this point into to the deep end of the pool. I’m not saying we can’t help or assist or do our part in it, but what I don’t want to do is have kind of a government takeover unnecessarily.”
The city has two fundamental controls related to the controversy — the city controls the lease with the center as well as city taxpayer funds that go to the center each budget year, Haynes said.
“If they fail to come into compliance we may withhold any further public funding from the entity,” Haynes said. “Obviously the intention here is to put some pressure back on the group … if our letter were to be ignored, then the council has to make a much tougher choice in 60 days. … So I would suggest to you that if you cannot work within the existing structure, some entity needs to be formed to take over because we would want to continue to have operations by a nonprofit charitable organization rather than a city-run facility.”
Haynes added that the city understands “all of the issues, probably, cannot be resolved within 60 days.”
After 60 days, Haynes said, the council may hear “a totally different side of the testimony. We may hear a totally different group of people come in and say everything’s in order, here’s the evidence of it and obviously that puts council in a different position if that’s what happens. The point of it is to try to apply some pressure via the lease, via the open meetings act.”
There are always “two sides to the story,” Haynes added. “When the board of directors receives the letter, they may come back and report different facts, different evidence to the council and we’ll have to weigh what we hear from both sides of the equation.
“It was pretty one sided today from the group of citizens that came to complain about the way things are being operated, and so we have to take those complaints very seriously. … we can only act on what we hear, and (Tuesday) was pretty one-sided.”
Something has “got to be done about the humanity of the animals that are actually there right now,” Haynes said. “That has to be addressed, and some plan for future operations has to be addressed.
“I don’t care about the personalities of the individuals involved. To me it’s not about any one particular person but we just need to help facilitate things moving in the right direction.”