Philly animal shelter's board puts tail between its legs

The board of directors for ACCT Philly, the city-funded animal shelter in the Feltonville section of North Philadelphia, is reacting to public criticism at its meetings by banning the public.

A board meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday, July 17, was to be followed by a customary public session. The public portion, canceled without explanation, had long been posted on the ACCT website and was going to be attended by animal advocates.

“I’m disappointed,” said Gary Auerbach, who volunteers at ACCT,  which is at 111 W. Hunting Park Ave. “The rescue community views these board meetings as opportunities to express their point of view and to propose ideas to make the process better.”

Closing Monday’s board meeting follows the unexpected cancellation of the May board meeting so the board could go on “retreat,” chairman David Wilson told me at the time.

The canceled May meeting would have followed a City Council committee hearing at which a number of animal advocates hurled criticism at policies, professionalism, and practices at the animal shelter. By its actions, the board seems to be averse to criticism, and to transparency.

In an email last month, I asked Wilson why the board met every other month even though the bylaws call for monthly meetings. He said the board just decided on its own, but added that “the board is looking into a new meeting structure and format.”

We now know what that is, based on a notice recently posted on the ACCT website.

“Starting in July 2017,” the notice says, the board will meet monthly, but each month will be “either a public session or a closed board session.”

The closed-to-the-public sessions are planned for July 17, Sept. 18, and Nov. 20. The posted agendas, mostly covering operations and planning, show nothing sensitive enough to require the shroud of secrecy.

Then there are the so-called public sessions, scheduled for Aug. 21, Oct. 23, and Dec. 18.

Because those require only one board member to be present, along with an unspecified number of ACCT managers, they’re not really “board meetings.”

People wishing to speak will get a maximum of five minutes. “Responses to any unanswered questions or issues will be posted to the ACCT website within 10 days of the meeting,” the notice on the website says.

So, you’re free to ask questions of board members who aren’t there — except for the one mandated member — and then to look for an answer on a website days later. “Transparency is crucial in maintaining a level of accountability for the welfare of our city’s most vulnerable animals,” said Samantha E. Holbrook, president of Citizens for a No-Kill Philadelphia.

“They are a taxpayer-funded shelter,” said Kristin Burns, an ACCT volunteer who also fosters dogs for two rescue groups. “How can the public not be allowed to attend?”

How can anyone be happy that the board is returning to its mandated monthly meetings when every other meeting is a sham?

“The goal is to become more transparent,” Wilson said in an email late Friday afternoon, adding, “All board meeting minutes and presentations will be shared with the public on ACCT’s website.” That’s good, but the new policy cuts face-to-face interactions between the public and the board.

The last couple of board meetings have been well-attended by people who took time out of their lives because they’re passionate animal-lovers.

The board “realized a large group of concerned citizens come to the meetings and they want for it to be more controlled,” said Azita Kay, president and founder of the Paw It 4Ward Foundation, a Cherry Hill-based rescue agency that takes more than 40 dogs a year from ACCT.

Her remark about “controlled” is the key to what has happened, I think.

The last “open” board meeting in February was attended by 60 animal advocates, many of whom had complaints about some ACCT practices. A couple of attendees, out of frustration, were rude to Wilson.

That shouldn’t happen.

I have written in recent months about the growing gulf between ACCT leadership and the volunteers and rescue groups that enable it to post good lifesaving numbers. It’s like a dysfunctional marriage, and I’ve called on the board to act as a marriage counselor between the parties because innocent animals’ lives are at stake.

Pulling down the shades is not the way to go.