‘We have to do this right’

Developments continue in animal shelter saga; two new board members added

Steve Nash
Sherry Howry (left), vice president of the Corinne T. Smith Animal Center Board of directors, and board member Betty Cass listen as board member Stephen Finch speaks Wednesday night at the Depot Civic and Convention Center. [Photo by Steve Nash]

With solid information unattainable amid a virtual communications blackout, Butch Lawson was “MIA and unreachable” as the director of the Corinne T. Smith Animal Center Thursday morning and may have been fired, a member of the animal center’s board of directors said via Facebook message.

Several board members including Veronica Finch — who messaged the Bulletin Thursday in response to a request for comment — and her husband, Stephen, also a board member, have said Lawson and board president Debra Dixon have stopped communicating with some board members including the Finches.

Neither Dixon nor Lawson have responded to messages from the Bulletin requesting comment. Dixon was also not at the shelter Thursday, Finch said.

She said she’s been told that Dixon presented Lawson — who was named the center’s director on Jan. 27 — with a letter Monday stating his services were no longer needed. She said she was told the letter was signed by Dixon and five other board members who are at odds with board members including the Finches.

“The rest of us board members had no idea and were not involved in this decision,” Finch said.

She said her husband was among board members and volunteers who were at the shelter Thursday morning, scrambling to help the “remaining staff” prepare to open to the public at 1 p.m. Three staff members did not show up for work Thursday, Finch said.

Two new board members

Wednesday night, an audience of about 50 citizens engaged with six board members — and a seventh member via Skype — who showed up for a board meeting held at the Depot Civic and Convention Center in Brownwood. The board gained two new members at the meeting as Leona Cleveland and John Morris were unanimously voted onto the board, bringing the board to its full allotment of 15.

Cleveland has previously served on the board.

The meeting was moved to the city facility in anticipation of a large audience. The animal shelter’s board meetings are usually held at the shelter, which has limited space.

Board members conducted a question-and-answer session with audience members before calling the board into session.

With Dixon absent — along with board members Bob Dixon, Larry and Peggy Eason, Patricia Caudell and Kevin Kitchens — the Wednesday night meeting seemed lively but unified.  It did not reflect the disagreement of a divided board that has been present at the past several meetings, which at times have seemed chaotic. Those individuals were named to the board late last year.

The board members who attended — vice president Sherry Howry, Stephen and Veronica Finch, Allan and Betty Cass, Anna Day and, via Skype, Howry’s husband, Bill — could not answer all of the questions, saying they were hampered by the lack of communication from Dixon and Lawson. With the exception of the Casses, those board members are also recent additions.

Another board meeting has been called for next Wednesday night.

‘To protect the organization’

The attending board members made it clear they view a tumultuous Dec. 16 board meeting, when the board shifted as Debra Dixon was voted in as president, as a “coup.” The board members also indicated they would like to see Dixon off the board.

Stephen Finch indicated board members will be seeking Brownwood City Attorney Pat Chesser’s advice on matters dealing with Dixon — including how to have items placed on the meeting agendas when Dixon refuses to add them — and on revising the organization’s bylaws. Chesser and Brownwood City Manager Emily Crawford were among the audience.

Revisions to the bylaws are needed “to protect the organization,” Finch said. “That’s first and foremost — to prevent anything like this from ever happening again.”

‘We’ve got to get our board straight’

Board members restated issues they said have plagued the shelter including numbers of animals that have far exceeded capacity, the loss of donors because of the controversy, lack of transparency and the board being run without adhering open meetings laws and Roberts Rules of Order.

“I was expecting to have resignations (Wednesday night) as far as board members,” Stephen Finch said, referring to the board members who were not present. “We’ve got to get our board straight. That is where our issues lie right now.

“Number one is over-population, number two is our board. If the board’s straight, everything else is going to start falling into place. There are protocols and there are rules and there are regulations, and we’re going to go by them, period.”

When an audience member asked what steps are being taken regarding replacing Dixon, Howry replied, “We’re going to work on it.”

Stephen Finch added, “we can’t do it this session. I’m really hoping that with all of this taking place, we’re going to get some resignations. We can’t vote people out. I’m hoping that we can change bylaws that allows that. … however the way this is going right now, I would like to believe that there’s going to be resignations.”

Positive developments

In addition to the addition of the two new board members, there were other positive developments including:

• The return of Tinya Thomas — who resigned last week the shelter’s rescue coordinator and was paid for her services — to the shelter. Thomas said she is there as a volunteer, not a paid staff member.

• Board members repeated what had been announced last week at the Brownwood City Council meeting — the reduction in the number of dogs at the shelter thanks to rescues taking dogs. Stephen Finch refuted an earlier claim on Facebook that the shelter was preparing to euthanize dozens of dogs and would receive a grant for doing so. That’s false, and animals are not being euthanized, Finch said.

Audience members applauded when it was announced that a dog’s 18-month stay — the longest at the shelter — has just ended when a rescue agreed take her, pending one more negative heartworm test.

• Conditions at the shelter have improved significantly from late December, board members said. Despite the drama that has gripped the shelter and the board, the staff has worked hard and the shelter is cleaner, it was announced.

Not welcome at shelter

Questions from audience members included Lawson’s status, and there was already speculation Lawson was gone — but no one could say for sure. “We were told he quit,” Howry said. “He took all his citations off the wall. It appears he’s left.”

Another audience member asked if the board president has the authority to “leave things off the agenda at his or her will.”

Board members answered “no” nearly in unison, although it was unclear what those board members believe can be done about Dixon’s earlier refusal to add items to the agenda requested by Stephen Finch.

Finch said many of the questions can’t be answered because “none of us have been allowed at the shelter,” Stephen Finch said. “It was a very, almost hostile, environment when we did go in.”

Stephen and Veronica Finch said they did go to the shelter Wednesday for the first time in about a month, and neither Lawson nor Dixon were present.

‘It’s not going to happen that way again’

“Things happened in December that were not necessarily, in my opinion, done above ground,” Stephen Finch said. “Due process was not followed and it’s not going to happen that way again. The number one thing is, we have to do this right.

“We’re not here to smear names. However, we want the facility run right and it’s up to us as the board of directors to make sure it happens. The most important thing right now is the animals.

“ … From this point on, we’ve got to do everything right. … the community has not been done right at all. People have been shunned, people have been turned away, people have been not treated well.”

An audience member asked what had actually been accomplished with the Wednesday night board meeting.

“First and foremost, we’ve got two new board members who are going to be a huge asset,”Stephen Finch said. “It may seem we have not accomplished anything in this meeting but once again we can’t do all this in one meeting. It is progress. We are moving forward.”