Cattery for city animal shelter likely to come up at April 16 meeting

UPDATED: April 14, 2019

The cattery at the Great Falls Animal Shelter will likely be discussed again during next week’s City Commission meeting, though it’s not on the agenda.

Last week, the commission voted 3-2 to postpone their decision to September on a $462,000 contract to Detailed Construction for the cattery addition at the shelter. Since the bid has to be awarded, modified or rejected within 60 days, that effectively killed the bids and if the commission decided to move forward with the cattery in September, the city would have to rebid the project for a third time and construction would likely be delayed until at least next spring and potentially have a higher cost.

Commission delays cattery decision to September, effectively rejecting bids

But the public response to the decision has been strong in criticizing the delay and the apparent conflict of interest on Commissioner Owen Robinson’s part. A number of people have also indicated that they plan to attend the April 16 meeting to express their thoughts about the cattery delay.

[READ: State law regarding ethics and public officials]

City staff said Wednesday that they are aware of the community’s concerns and are considering options to address the issue at the April 16 meeting.

As of Thursday afternoon, nothing related to the animal shelter was on the meeting agenda.

Cattery addition at city shelter up for commission vote this week

Robinson made the motion during the April 2 meeting to delay the contract decision so that he and Commissioner Mary Moe could continue meeting with the Great Falls Animal Foundation, which owns and operates the Maclean Cameron Animal Adoption Center.

Robinson is the former president of the foundation board and has tried for years to get the city to partner with the foundation for operations of their newer facility in some capacity.

Over the years, there have been rounds of discussion on partnership options between the foundation and the city shelter. For the most part, the discussions have stalled out when the city staff cautioned on committing to anything without firm details about the arrangement or cost to the city, and by extension, the taxpayers.

City again seeking bids for cattery addition at the Great Falls Animal Shelter

On April 9, Linda Metzger, longtime supporter of the cattery who contributed $10,000 for the project, delivered documents to the city that included a letter from her attorney Patrick Flaherty outlining what they believe is a conflict of interest issue, among others, in the April 2 vote.

Metzger also sent a copy of the documents to The Electric.

The letter outlined what the attorney and his client believe is an ethics violation, but so far, staff doesn’t view the letter as a formal ethics complaint that would trigger an ethics committee hearing.

City rejects bid for animal shelter upgrades

Staff is currently revising the ethics committee processes and a minor change to the committees meeting schedule is on the April 16 agenda. During the April 2 meeting, Moe said she would argue that the ethics committee is not needed since there are provisions in state law regarding ethics and public officials.

Flaherty’s letter asks the city to change course and approve the cattery construction contract.

Bids open for expansion project at the Great Falls Animal Shelter

Flaherty’s letter alleges that Robinson violated state law on conflicts of interest since he has strong ties to the animal foundation.

Flaherty’s letter also alleges that Robinson has exposed the city to possible state law violations regarding public participation, public trust and potential breach of contract or arbitrary governmental action in rejecting the bid.

Roughly a dozen comments submitted through the city’s online comment system also questioned the delay, Robinson’s conflict of interest and the meetings between Robinson, Moe and foundation board members outside the public eye, that also didn’t involve city staff.

Several letters have been submitted to The Electric anonymously in recent weeks expressing frustration about the commission’s cattery decision and the city’s ethics code.

The tension between the city and the animal foundation is not new.

Here’s a look back at the evolution of the discussion regarding the animal shelter and the animal foundation since 2007, based on publicly available city agenda reports, meeting minutes and associated documents on the city website.

In 2007, the city opted not to renew a contract with the Humane Society of Cascade County and resumed operating the city-owned animal shelter and city animal code enforcement after “several months of attempting to resolve citizen complaints and performance issues with the contractor. The decision by the city has been a contentious and divisive issue in the community,” according to a May 2008 staff report.

At the time, a consultant’s report found that the city shelter was unsalvagable and the city shouldn’t put any additional resources into the facility. That consultant later worked with the foundation on designing their new facility, according to meeting minutes.

During a 2007 commission meeting, Susan Overfield criticized the city’s plan to take over the animal shelter and was removed from the meeting by plainclothes police officers.

Overfield sued and in 2011, she and the city reached a $500,000 settlement, according to the Missoulian.

During that case, Overfield sought to gather information from the animal foundation and when the foundation did not comply with court orders, members of the foundation board were found in contempt of court. That lawsuit ended up at the state supreme court.

In June 2008, the city commission created an animal shelter/enforcement advisory committee to assist the commission on animal shelter and animal control issues, according to city documents.

During the June 17, 2008 meeting when the committee was established, Ron Gessaman, a regular meeting goer for years, said that the action contradicted the city’s public promise to only be involved in the shelter for 60-90 days after it didn’t renew the shelter operations contract, according to the meeting minutes.

The advisory committee was created for a three-year term, according to the minutes.

In November 2008, according to meeting minutes, City Manager Greg Doyon told commissioners that he met with foundation representatives and the two agencies were trying to resolve “who will be accountable for what and how outcomes will be measured in this new public/private relationship.”

Drafts of a partnership agreement were outlined during a Feb. 17, 2009 commission work session. At the conclusion of that meeting, staff said the discussion would be continued at the next work session, but it was not.

During a June 2009 budget meeting, staff said there was a new director at the city shelter and Doyon was working with him to finance a new shelter, but the budget included funding to operate the existing shelter for another year.

In October 2009, the preliminary design for the new facility had changed and the foundation had gone back to the drawing board for a new design “that would be more efficient in heating and cooling, easier on maintenance, and more efficient than the
preliminary design,” according to meeting minutes.

At that point, the foundation didn’t have a cost estimate for construction of a new facility.

During a January 2010 work session, Doyon told commissioners that he had been discussing options with the animal foundation for the last eight to nine months regarding financing a new facility.

The commission had directed Doyon to work with the foundation to try to come up with something and a memorandum of understanding had been drafted, but the framework for the finance section hasn’t been completed, according to the minutes.

In that meeting, Doyon said the foundation was working with an architect to determine the cost to build a shelter it thought was appropriate for the community and suggested another work session in the near future to get direction from commissioners whether they want to do a facility with the foundation, or explore other options, according to the minutes.

At that time, Commissioner Bob Jones said a number of options needed to be explored before entering a public-private partnership. He said they needed to consider if animal control and sheltering was affordable in a $4.8 million building and if not, look at whether the existing city shelter could improve and at what cost, according to the minutes.

During that discussion, Commissioner Mary Jolley said the foundation’s estimates for their shelter construction had grown from $3 million to $4.8 million; that the city is legally responsible for animal control but that didn’t have to be done by the police department and suggested that the city seek proposals for animal control, according to the minutes.

At the time, the police chief said major upgrades were needed at the city shelter and there wasn’t enough room for animals coming in. When Jones asked if the city could send adoptable animals to the foundation, the chief said the upfront costs of animals coming into the shelter were the major costs and then the licensing and adoption fees would go to the animal foundation, according to the minutes.

At the end of that meeting, Commissioner Fred Burow and Mayor Mike Winters asked for a breakdown of the costs to keep each animal and fees for licensing and adoption.

During an April 2010 work session, a foundation board member told commissioners that the foundation had no interest in doing animal control or operating the existing shelter. The foundation requested that the city contribute what it would spend to contstruct its own facility to the foundations project through a lease arrangement and shared operating costs.

By October 2010, city staff asked the commission to seek proposals for management of the city animal shelter. Animal control was included as an optional portion of the request for proposals.

Initially, the city received no responses. The city released a scaled back request for proposals on Jan. 17, 2011 that did not include animal control and received responses from the Animal Welfare Reform Cooperative and the Animal Pet Association.

In April 2011, the commission directed staff to begin negotiations with the Animal Pet Association, though some members of the public pointed out some items from their website that caused concerns.

By June 2011, the city was no longer in negotiations with the group, according to mention by Burow in meeting minutes.

During a June 2011 budget meeting, staff said that the RFP process had showed minimal savings for the city with a third-party manager at the animal shelter and that more than $65,000 in shelter improvements had been completed during that fiscal year.

The shelter was listed as a commission priority going into the fiscal year 2012 budget and the city manager’s recommendations were to continue operating the shelter for the immediate future; police to handle animal control; and add a part-time volunteer coordinator position at the shelter for $24,190; and make about $30,000 in additional improvements to the shelter.

At an April 2012 work session, city staff detailed shelter operations, fees, improvements and the commission consensus was to continue working with Cascade County and Malmstrom Air Force Base to reduce fees and the euthanasia rate. At the time, the city didn’t have a contract with the county or the base for animal shelter services though such contracts had existed in the past, according to the minutes.

The city shelter staff began working with Nelson Architects in 2012 to develop as master plan, which identified current, desired and future space needs for the facility and options for achieving those needs.

The plan focused on additions to the existing building, including a cattery addition, canine area expansion, interior office and reception area remodeling, exterior façade renovation, site work, and landscaping, and provided cost estimates. The plan was developed due to the increasing Animal Shelter usage and how to best reduce animal stay time in the facility by increasing animal capacity space, according to the staff report.

In May 2013, the City Commission approved a professional services agreement with Nelson Architects for architectural/engineering services and in October 2013 approved the master plan facility and funding recommendations provided by staff.

In October 2016, Robinson and others from Maclean met with commissioners about possible collaboration.

At the time, Robinson was acting as the Maclean foundation past president and said he group was asking the city commission to direct the city manager to meet with foundation leaders to develop a plan for collaboration within 60 days.

During that meeting, commissioners indicated it would take more time and chose not to take action during the October meeting.

In 2016, Robinson said the foundation didn’t want to run the facility and had never intended to do so. During the meeting, Robinson told commissioners and city staffers that it would be difficult for the foundation to continue operating the center without city support.

At the April 2017 commission retreat, the shelter staff was given approval to pursue dollar-for-dollar grant matches from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. According to staff, the ASPCA has confirmed the city project’s worthiness for funding.

The city budget for fiscal year 2017 included a new hydro-incinerator, which has not yet been installed since staff was planning to install it in conjunction with construction on the cattery addition.

In 2018, the city requested bids for improvements to the animal shelter as identified in the master plan, but rejected the bids since they came in over what the shelter had raised in donations for the project. After that, city staff worked with Nelson architects to break the project into phases and in March 2019, put the cattery addition back out to bid.