By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
EXETER – In a unanimous vote Tuesday night, following a hearing in the Exeter Public Library, the town council passed an ordinance placing management of the animal shelter under the department of public works (DPW).
The measure amends sections 10-1 and 10-36 of Chapter 10 of the code as they apply to the shelter’s administration, personnel and other matters, including policy. The Director of Public Works (DPW) will oversee day-to-day operations as well as tackling the big picture of restoring the facility’s once-sterling reputation.
Throughout the past month, the shelter’s procedures and personnel have come under attack at meetings and online as has the council’s response to the controversy. In a surprising move designed to calm the war of words, members voted May 9 to temporarily ban all volunteers.
Tuesday’s vote seemed to be a step in the right direction.
During a relatively brief discussion – there were few questions from a small handful of speakers and little comment from council members – president Arlene Hicks said that, once the new chain of command is established, top priorities will involve revamping the operating manual and obtaining more specialized training for staff.
The manual, she noted, “hasn’t been updated since 2005.”
Pati deWardener, co-owner of the Yawgoo Valley Ski Area & Sport Park – and a longtime supporter of local and national pet adoption groups – asked if a panel of experts in various areas of animal behavior and training would be established to assist with the manual update.
“We haven’t gotten that far,” Hicks replied.
John Haery, a West Greenwich resident who has adopted pets from the Exeter shelter and also volunteered there, repeatedly inquired about the qualifications of DPW director Stephen P. Mattscheck to supervise an adoption facility.
After reminding the audience that all inquiries must focus on the ordinance itself, Hicks said, “What we need is an administrator; that’s what the charter doesn’t provide.”
deWardener, noting that she supervises a staff of 200 at her sprawling enterprise, said of the need for leadership, “I agree. Absolutely. It’s time for it.”
Earlier, Ray Morrissey Jr., the council liaison to the shelter, explained, “I didn’t get involved with the day-to-day operation. That was delegated. But there was a problem with leadership – there was never anybody in charge.”
Hicks indicated that the council had absorbed – and taken to heart – information from animal behaviorists who described a number of instructional programs aimed at teaching employees how to work with shelter dogs to make them adoptable.
“In the budget we have added money for training at the shelter,” she said.
A man rose in support of the ordinance and also endorsed the outstanding operation of the South Kingstown municipal shelter which is overseen by the DPW. Hicks then revealed that she and Morrissey visited that facility to “see how it’s run.” Apparently they were so impressed they will recommend using the South Kingstown program as the model for Exeter.
Dennis Tabella, director of Defenders of Animals, the statewide advocacy group, wasn’t allowed to voice a list of recommendations for policy changes at the shelter but the council did accepted a printed copy.
He wasn’t disappointed, he said, because “it gave me an opportunity to make some contacts I hadn’t made.” Tabella said he’d also like to see the council inspect more than one shelter before making a final decision on the best template.
“I wanted to let them know what other shelters like West Warwick are doing. They’ve put one dog to sleep in three years. It’s nothing fancy; it just works.”
In other shelter-related business, the council voted to seek bids for a solar thermal hot water system for the building; funds will come from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a federal program.
In shouldering responsibility for stabilizing the shaken shelter, Mattscheck has an unabashed fan in E. Stefan Coutoulakis, Exeter’s emergency management director. He said selecting his colleague is “a win-win for the town.”
Coutoulakis has worked closely with Mattscheck during such weather crises as Tropical Storm Irene and believes his leadership was key as Exeter became one of few towns whose roads were kept open.
“He was literally my eyes in the field with the fire department,” he recalled. “Steve’s crew remained out in the storm, from the first tree limb that went down to recovery mode to make sure the roads remained open for us. If he heard fire trucks were going out, he called and let me know if roads were open, if we needed to divert.
“He was the ace in my pocket. If it wasn’t for him and his men in the field, there’s no way the operation would have worked as well as it did with the first responders.
“He’ll provide the direction needed so we can all move forward.”
Mattscheck has already been practicing diplomacy.
Kelly Patton, president of the Friends of the Exeter Animal Shelter, a fundraising group, said that after a conversation with the shelter’s new director, she left feeling her viewpoint was welcome.
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN.