By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
EXETER – As the owner of two large dogs including an adopted Rottweiler-mix, Stephen P. “Steve” Mattscheck has a soft spot for animals. He’s also connected to the Exeter Animal Shelter, adjacent to the Department of Public Works (DPW), which he now directs.
“I helped build the facility,” he says of the shelter. “Public Works is already responsible for all the public buildings and grounds and we’ve worked there – replacing windows and doors, making repairs; it was all done in-house.”
On May 22, the town council passed an ordinance adding administration of the shelter to Steve’s portfolio of responsibilities. Besides DPW and the animal facility, the transfer/recycle center is also under his jurisdiction.
“They [the council] asked if I’d have an issue with it. I said ‘Not at all’.”
Mattscheck takes the helm after a month of intense controversy that spread via internet, letters to the editor and contentious public meetings.
He brings to the situation just what’s needed: a sense of calm and a business-like demeanor cultivated during years in the military and civilian public service. He’s also approaching this new assignment as a clean slate.
“Anything up till Tuesday is hearsay to me,” he says.
“There’s no reason to get too worked up over anything. I have been worked up, can be at times. This isn’t one of them.”
An Exeter native who had “a lot of dogs growing up,” Steve is a graduate of North Kingstown High School and was an NK municipal employee before entering the Army. After being stationed in Missouri, he returned to East Greenwich with the 861st Engineer Company, Rhode Island Army National Guard.
In October 1984, he started his career with the Exeter DPW and worked his way up. “It’s been a while,” he says of his service. He’s justifiably proud of the work his crews did after Tropical Storm Irene struck, making sure roads clogged by downed trees and power lines were cleared before the first day of a week-long ordeal ended.
Esteemed by his peers, Mattscheck sits on the board of directors of the American Public Works Association’s New England chapter. “This organization is excellent,” he says. “The knowledge, information and training are invaluable.”
Steve’s two children are on the road to success, too: his daughter, a recent graduate of Johnson & Wales, had a job waiting as a chef for Disneyworld in Orlando; his son is nearing the end of a five-and-a-half year program in architecture at Roger Williams University.
The family includes a Siberian husky and a decidedly non-scary Rottweiler mix, adopted from a shelter. Both are 23 months old with the husky arriving first, followed by the Rottie-mix eight weeks later. A pack animal by breed, the husky was thrilled to have a companion.
“My personal opinion,” Steve says, “is that every dog if raised properly and shown affection will do very well. But when we pick up a [stray] dog, we don’t know their background; we’re in the dark. Safety gear is very important” for animal control personnel.
He says his management skills were needed simply because “union employees cannot administer themselves.” He sees both sides of the labor picture, having been a union shop steward before being named director. “I’m not going to violate a union contract,” he states. “I was once on the other side of the table.”
While there’s “a lot involved” in running the shelter, Steve says it all comes down to the written word: the charter, the manual of policies and procedures and the union contract. “Those are the three bibles. If something isn’t working, we change it” in one of those documents.
He says there’s no difference between managing the shelter and the other operations he supervises. His multiple assignments call for him to oversee the work of eight full-time employees, five part-time and a floater who fills in at the shelter when needed.
He says his first tasks will include “running the budget and getting programs in place here. It will take a little time to get things squared away.” He’s also meeting with each employee to acquire individual input. By putting him in charge, “employees have some place to go [with questions.] It makes it easier for them. They can pick up the phone, call and obtain an answer.”
He’s already thinking about possible sources of funding for the enhanced training the council wants shelter employees to have. There are federal and state programs and, he notes, “Some are just a matter of making a phone call. Any training that’s available, we’ll look into.”
Appointing a panel of experts in animal behavior and socialization when the shelter’s manual is updated – suggested from the floor during the May 22 meeting – will be up to the council but Mattscheck seems open to ideas.
If conflicts arise, he believes “common sense should rule.”
“My concerns are safe handling of the animals, employee safety and training to fit the size of the operation. If I see something that’s out of place, it’s my job to correct it, to make it better for the employees.”
He thinks the reason things became increasingly acrimonious as the shelter crisis grew is simple: “There were too many personalities involved.”
On his watch, Steve promises, “The animals come first.”
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .