Commission reverses course on cattery decision for city animal shelter
During Tuesday’s meeting, the City Commission directed staff to schedule a special meeting so it could rescind its previous vote to postpone a decision on the cattery addition at the Great Falls Animal Shelter.
They’ll then put the construction contract for the cattery on the May 7 agenda for consideration.
On April 2, commissioners voted 3-2 to delay a decision to September on whether to award a $462,000 contract to Detailed Construction. A decision on the bid has to be made within 60 days of selection or the city would have to rebid the project. The city selected Detailed Construction from a pool of three bids on March 20.
The motion was made by Commissioner Owen Robinson and he said he wanted to delay the decision to give himself and Commissioner Mary Moe more time to meet with the foundation that built and operates the Maclean Cameron Animal Adoption Center to see if a partnership in some form would be a cost savings for the city.
The cattery addition project at the shelter is being funded entirely by donations, which shelter staff and volunteers have been raising through the Help Us Grow Project, which launched in summer 2014, according to city documents.
Robinson is a past president of the animal foundation and in 2016 asked the city to take over operation of the Maclean center. That round of discussions petered out when the city and the foundation tried to work out the details.
Since the April 2 decision, a number of shelter donors, supporters and volunteers have expressed frustration with the commission’s decision through the city’s online comment form, email, phone calls and letters. Some of those comments and letters were also sent to The Electric, including one from Linda Metzger, a long time supporter of the cattery project. Others have been in support of combining the two organizations since they view the neighboring facilities as redundant.
On Tuesday some of those locals came to the commission meeting to share their thoughts.
Erin Kolczak said the commission was “stonewalling” the project that was being funded by donors.
She said that Robinson should not be voting on issues related to the animal foundation given his past role there. She said that Robinson and Moe’s meetings with the foundation that were outside the public eye were a “gross misuse of power.”
Suzie Stephenson-Love said she was pleased that the city was talking with the foundation and hoped the talks would be productive.
Deb Sherrer said she initially hated the city shelter, but her daughter took her in and now she’s a volunteer there. She said the city shelter has made improvements over the years and the “city shouldn’t have to rescue the foundation. The shelter has a place, the foundation has a place…they’re both needed.”
She asked that the cattery contract be back on an agenda and that Robinson recuse himself.
“It’s obvious there’s a conflict of interest,” Sherrer said.
John Huber, a board member at Maclean, said the meetings were for brainstorming and “no secret society” had been created.
He said the foundation had stayed true to its ideals and if they waited for the city to build a new shelter, they’d be waiting forever.
Moe said that she believes its her obligation as a commissioner to meet with people who believe they can make the community better. As examples of other groups she meets with in situations that don’t constitute public meetings, she said she participates in the Continuum of Care group that focuses on homelessness, and with the Future of the Falls young professionals group.
She said those aren’t issues that are likely to come before the commission, but in the case of the animal foundation, she said they recognized it was an item that would come before the commission, but it was an important conversation to have.
Moe said that Robinson announced his intention to meet with the foundation during a public meeting.
She said there is a need for a cattery but that they wanted time to further discuss a potential partnership.
Public comment had caused her to revise her thoughts and that “I didn’t know how overcrowded the shelter is,” she said, and thanked a resident for calling to alert her to that situation.
Moe said that although the shelter and volunteers had raised the money for the project, she wanted to look at the long-term to see if the two organizations could be combined in a way that would save the city money since the city has other needs, particularly in public safety.
Robinson said he’s no longer on the foundation board and he’s coming at the issue from the side of the city.
“It’s not a crime or a violation of anything to give money,” he said. In 2017, he and his wife made a $250,000 donation to the foundation to help it pay off the debt on the building construction.
He said that money was intended to be donated after he and his wife died, but they opted to give it sooner to help the foundation pay off the debt.
“I can’t believe how insensitive some of the letters have been about that,” he said of the donation to the foundation.
Robinson said he gives large donations to other organizations around town as well.
“Does that make me biased? Yes, of course it does,” he said.
One of his main concerns now at the city is improving compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“I’m on the side of the city to try and save money,” he said.
Robinson said the meetings with the foundation haven’t produced details yet, but he was worried that the cattery might get in the way.
During the April 2 meeting, Commissioner Bill Bronson asked him why the cattery would hinder discussions and also how the commission could ignore the effort to raise the money for the shelter improvements.
Robinson said he’d been haunted by those questions since that meeting and so he suggested that the commission have a special meeting to rescind their April 2 vote and then put the cattery bid on the May 7 agenda for consideration.