The Austin Chronicle

Animal Advisory Commission Endorses APA! Takeover of Town Lake Animal Center

By Josh Rosenblatt, March 9, 2012, News

The Animal Advisory Commission held a special-called meeting Monday night, March 5, to discuss a proposal that would allow Austin Pets Alive! to move its entire operation from its current home at the corner of Manchaca and Lamar into the city's old Town Lake Animal Center. In November, the group signed a license agreement with the city to run an overflow adoption center using about a third of the site, where 30 to 60 of the dogs from the new city shelter on Levander Loop could be sent by Chief Animal Services Officer Abigail Smith in times of overcrowding – and now APA! was coming back to ask for the remainder of the TLAC facilities.

Last month, after learning that the lease on its current property would expire in May, APA! Executive Director Ellen Jefferson had approached the City Council's Public Health and Human Services Committee with the proposal to take over TLAC. Although the three council members on the committee (Mike Martinez, Laura Mor­ri­son, Chris Riley) seemed receptive, before making a decision, they wanted to hear from staff, and they wanted the recommendation of the Animal Advisory Commission. That's when things started to get messy.

For starters, Jefferson and APA! board member Palmer Neuhaus both serve on the commission, so they would have to recuse themselves from the discussion and the vote. Secondly, after giving the APA! proposal a thorough review, Smith sent a long memo to City Council on March 2 laying out in detail why she couldn't support it. She pointed out that APA! had extended its reach outside the city limits to Bastrop, Kyle, and as far south as San Antonio, meaning, she wrote, "if APA relocates to TLAC, effectively the City of Austin will be subsidizing the cost of housing animals from other cities and counties, while the City's homeless pets will continue to be at risk in a shelter that is perpetually over-capacity."

Jefferson responded in a memo defending the TLAC proposal and stressing the damage to Austin's live-outcome rate that would result if APA! were to suddenly find itself without a home, and she accused Smith of making accusations that "border on slander." Jefferson also cc'd her fellow commission members on the email, which in itself might have constituted a violation of the city's ethics code. Asked what he thought of Jefferson's letter, City Attorney John Steiner told the Chronicle, "That's not a recusal."

Nevertheless, the show must go on, as must the meeting. So on Monday, more than 100 people – most of them in APA! T-shirts – gathered at the Austin Energy Building on Barton Springs Road. The meeting started contentiously, with FixAustin founder Ryan Clinton accusing anyone who was against the APA! proposal of "engaging in a collateral attack on the no-kill philosophy itself," followed by APA! board member Tom Albright using his six minutes to chide Smith for writing a "regrettable," "inappropriately antagonistic," and "unfortunately misleading" letter that, he said, could lead to thousands of animals being euthanized. But then commission Chair David Lundstedt (who had gone on TV not a week before to proclaim his support for the APA! proposal) rose and, in a supposed symbolic gesture of conciliation, ripped printed copies of both Smith and Jef­fer­son's memos in half. The crowd cheered – more for the shredding of Smith's letter, I'm guessing, than Jefferson's.

Then former animal commission Chair Larry Tucker said he and another party (unnamed) had brokered an alternate agreement over the weekend between Smith and Jefferson – an agreement under which, essentially, APA! could move into the TLAC site as long as Smith determined that no savable Austin animals would die as a result of out-of-town animals taking up kennel space on city property. Tucker's timeline seemed curious at best, considering Jefferson had sent her memo just that morning, a good nine hours after the late-night détente had supposedly been reached.

All but one of the five unrecused commission members voted in favor of the proposal. The lone "nay" vote, Emily Phillips, didn't bother to hide her disappointment with the entire proceeding. "I view this as the city allowing itself to be held hostage by a nonprofit group that is looking for subsidization because they lost their building," she said. The large group of APA! supporters, who had been so loud throughout the meeting, grumbled when Phillips spoke but only tepidly applauded the passage of the compromise measure as they shuffled out of the room. It was hard to gauge Jefferson's reaction, and this reporter was unable to learn why she had sent her memo after a deal had reportedly already been achieved.

Smith, meanwhile, seemed strangely pleased. Maybe it's because she knew two things almost no one else did: 1) that Nathan Winograd, the hero of the national no-kill movement, was the unnamed party who had brokered the TLAC compromise between Smith and Jefferson, and 2) that deep down she believes the city can maintain its no-kill status without APA!'s help. "I'm not saying I want that support withdrawn at all," she had told me a few days earlier, "but if that were to happen, the city would certainly not revert back to killing kittens and puppies. We could stay at 90 percent without APA!"

Posted here are the Memos to City Council from Chief Animal Services Officer Abigail Smith and Austin Pets Alive! Director Ellen Jefferson.

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