Polk majority votes down reinstating animal cruelty investigators

Published 9:45 pm Monday, September 28, 2015

The majority of Polk County Commissioners voted against reappointing animal cruelty investigators Patti Lovelace and Nancy Hasselbring again this week.

Commissioners met Monday, Sept. 28 and heard from 15 residents during citizen comments, some telling emotional stories of starving and dying animals, seeing the investigators take their own money to help animals and people and stated their disgust at what they called the majority’s political reasons for not reappointing the investigators.

Commissioners Ray Gasperson and Shane Bradley voted to reinstate Lovelace and Hasselbring while commissioners Tom Pack, Michael Gage and Keith Holbert voted against their reinstatement on Monday. During board appointments in August, the same vote occurred.

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Margo Savage said several years ago she started the animal cruelty investigators in Polk County. Since the start, Savage said the investigators have helped more than 300 animals out of dire situations, educated and assisted owners on proper care of their animals and helped feed their animals when they hit hard times. She also said investigators assisted the animal control officer in the care of impounded animals, performed initial investigations when the animal control officer was not available and travelled with him on calls.

“Last week was the first week in all our years of helping the county that I was unable to send animal cruelty investigators to review a complaint within 12 hours of the call coming in,” Savage said. “Our team is short-staffed now and of the five of us remaining, one is brand new and four of us work part-time.”

Savage also said they can’t go to calls alone and spoke of the dangers of the volunteer job. She said investigators are often dealing with people who are angry the investigators are there or they deal with mentally unstable people, like those hoarding animals.

“I can assure you that political affiliations and preferences have absolutely no part in how we do our job,” Savage said. “No more than it does for an EMS worker, a volunteer firefighter or any other critical care provider.”

Pack responded to the Bulletin in August that he didn’t reappoint Lovelace and Hasselbring because he “didn’t feel obligated to vote for those that come out and publicly (ad in Tryon Daily Bulletin) try to sway others not to vote for us.”

The advertisement supported Democratic commissioner candidates for the 2014 election, with Lovelace and Hasselbring being two of almost 200 signatures on the advertisement.

Lovelace asked commissioners a list of questions including if they’d ever seen a dog so skinny you could see its bones, with hair matted so bad it cannot see and its mouth matted so bad it cannot eat; anemic because it is covered with fleas.

“How about a horse that is so emaciated it can barely stand, it’s body covered with a bacterial infection, no hair to keep it warm, it’s 30 degrees outside, struggling to breathe because of a respiratory infection and maggots up to his knees because he has been standing in a small, confined area in two feet of muck for months,” Lovelace asked.

“The drinking water is slimy green and the hay is black with mold. Have you ever gone to a farm and there are dead, decaying animals lying everywhere?”

She asked commissioners if they’d ever held an animal, listening to it cry from the pain, knowing a veterinarian was going to euthanize it because there is nothing more that can be done to save it.

“We have done all these things,” Lovelace said. “This group of investigators has done all these things and so much more.”

When a call comes in about an animal in trouble or a person that needs help, Lovelace said, she dropped everything, including her job to get them help immediately.

“We don’t look or care about what political party they are in, what campaign signs they have in their yard,��� she said. “We care about the animal. That is all.”

Sharon Rose said she is disturbed to learn there are biased politics in Polk County.

“Are taxpayers relying on commissioners who according to rumor did not renew the contracts for cruelty investigators Lovelace and Hasselbring because they did not support the political climb of those officials,” asked Rose. “Is it correct for these commissioners to affect the professional future, be it salaried or voluntary of either officer, due to political ego?”

Leonard Rizzo said the county needs this organization so badly it’s unbelievable.

“These animals don’t care who votes, how they vote,” Rizzo said. “And as far as I’m concerned, to all this board, I voted for a lot of you guys and it scares the heck out of me.”

Rizzo said commissioners have a job to see that the investigators do their job right and nothing else is any of their business.

“If they say something that offends you, handle that personally, you don’t take them off,” Rizzo said. “And who suffers? The animals, not the people.”

He said the animals don’t have a voice and when the county has people going out and helping them the commissioners should be helping them, not hindering them.

“I’m tired of this nonsense, I’ve seen too much of it,” said Rizzo. “Get over yourselves and get these ladies back on the job.”

JoAnne Leen showed before and after pictures she said show exactly what the investigators do for animals. She asked if commissioners know this is the county’s only volunteer board that has yearly training requirements and it requires investigators to take an oath of office. After reviewing some of what investigators do, including feeding animals no matter what time of day or if it’s a holiday and sitting in court all day to testify in case, Leen brought up an article printed in the Sept. 8, 2011 Bulletin announcing a gentleman announcing his run for county commissioner.

“He stated in this article, and I quote, ‘The biggest problem right now is the respect for the people,’” Leen said. “’That is my biggest problem with the commission. I feel like the community voices its opinion but they aren’t always listened to.’ That was well said, Commissioner Gage, and I hope you understand there’s still room for improvement.”

Kate Bond said firing people because of their politics is just not right.

“It’s not American,” said Bond. “If you can do that does that mean that you can fire people because of their religion, because of their color? I mean, what comes next? That seems to be a slippery slope to me. So I’m not encouraged that that would be the given reason. These people have done an admirable job; they’ve never done anything wrong other than have politics that are different from yours.”

Bond said the commissioners’ decision has now put a lot of abused animals’ lives at risk.

Gasperson said the reason he put the item on the meeting agenda was because of a lot of discussion in the community, and because both women have done an outstanding volunteer service as animal cruelty investigators.

Animal cruelty officer with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, Michael Herman, said the last seizure was the case of the starved alpacas and llamas and they needed to be fed a few times a day for four months. If it weren’t for the animal cruelty investigators, he said, the county would have seen 80-90 hours of comp time from him.

“They are just a great asset to animal control,” Herman said. “If I’m busy, they’ll go check on an animal for me. If we lost animal cruelty investigators you’re going to see a lot of animals not taken care of and it’s going to cost the county more money.”

Commissioner Holbert said there’s been a lot of talk about this being political. Audience members laughed and Pack used his gavel saying the public has had its time and now it’s the commissioners’ time to speak. Holbert said the decision was based on character not politics.

Gage said he’s heard a lot of comments and has tried to find records of what the team has done in the last three years.

“We appoint a group, yet we don’t really have a clue what they do,” said Gage.

Gage said he’s asked the clerk of court for records and can’t find any documentation or reports of what the animal cruelty team does.

“That’s my concern,” said Gage.

He said he knows they are doing a great job but there needs to be documentation.

Gasperson said documentation does exist. It may take some time, but they would need specific names to produce records, not just a general query, Gasperson said.

During the discussion there were comments made from the audience and Pack asked sheriff Donald Hill to come to the front and escort anyone out who has an outburst.

“We’re going to have this discussion without interruption,” said Pack.

Gage said with any board commissioners see reports. He said he sees articles in the paper and (what the animal cruelty investigators do) is great, but the county needs to look at how this board is set up.

He said no matter what board of commissioners is sitting up there in the future they need to hold them accountable.

When commissioners made the vote Monday night to not reinstate Lovelace and Hasselbring, comments from the audience included, “Unbelievable,” “You guys have no moral compass, none, I don’t know where it is,” and “Thank you, Mr. Gasperson.” A majority of the audience left the meeting following the vote.

Pack said the board has options, including to hand off the animal cruelty team to the sheriff’s office, turn it over to the Foothills Humane Society or the health department.

Attorney Jana Berg reviewed the state statute for animal cruelty investigators, saying she thinks there may be some confusion. Berg said the investigators are not a board. They are appointed by the board of commissioners to serve without compensation for the prevention of cruelty to animals.

Berg said they have to go through training, have to carry a badge and have to go through an oath of office.

Pack told Berg that he doesn’t know if there’s any confusion. Pack said commissioners will still have to vote for investigators, but for their direction and record keeping, they should fall under the sheriff’s office or humane society. Commissioners did say the sheriff’s office could make recommendations to commissioners regarding appointees but they would just be recommendations. Commissioners have to appoint investigators, according to state statutes.

Commissioners came to a consensus to have the county manager speak with the sheriff’s office about animal cruelty investigators being under the sheriff’s office and about keeping records.

Holbert mentioned that he understands a trailer was mentioned for hauling big animals and the county may want to look into that as well. Hasselbring has supplied a trailer for hauling big animals until she was not reappointed to the team, according to animal cruelty investigators.

The Bulletin recently posted a poll on its website asking, “Do you agree with commissioners Pack, Gage and Holbert’s decision to not reinstate two investigators to the animal cruelty investigations board?”

There were 216 users who responded “no,” 12 responded “yes,” 12 responded “don’t care,” and 8 were “undecided.”