Niagara Gazette

March 11, 2013

No-kill activists file suit to dump SPCA reform board

By Joyce M. Miles
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — A trio of no-kill activists are suing the SPCA of Niagara, claiming the nonprofit animal welfare agency’s reorganization is illegal.

Three dues-paying members, Carol Tutzauer of Wilson and Ellen Reese and Clara Miller of Erie County, have filed a lawsuit in state Supreme Court seeking to have the May 2012 election of board members, and changes in the bylaws made by that board, invalidated. They’re further seeking a court-supervised annual membership meeting for the purpose of getting a new board elected.

The suit is prompted by the recent discovery that the SPCA has raised its annual “full” membership fee to $1,000 from $25. Only full members have voting privileges at the organization’s annual meeting, according to the SPCA’s website.

Buffalo attorney Peter Reese, whose wife is one of the complainants, charged the current board is trying to “dump” dues-paying members, a number of whom are no-kill enthusiasts who joined the organization a year ago in the midst of a euthanasia scandal.

With the membership fee increase, Reese said, “they’ve declared all-out war on the members. ... The supreme body (of the SPCA) is the members and this board has decided to run away with it.”

Board trustees aren’t saying too much about raising the SPCA’s voting-membership fee in light of the pending litigation, but trustee/board spokesman Lawrence Eggert did suggest it passed muster with the agency’s new legal counsel, which includes an attorney who specializes in non-profit organization. Few if any non-profits in the area are run by dues-paying members, as that model doesn’t produce needed stability, he said.

Relations between the activists and the trustees clearly have soured. 

Reese said he’s fully aware that one or more trustees are saying he tried making his family’s continued monthly pledge to SPCA conditional on him being appointed board president, and Tutzauer being named executive director of the operation. He denied both claims vehemently, calling them “defamatory.”

The activists’ 72-page suit complains the SPCA of Niagara is not being run transparently or in a fiscally responsible fashion. The chief complainants are the Reeses, who cut off their $2,000-a-month donations at some point last year after the board did not yield to their demand for changes including granting “amnesty” to all former SPCA trustees, employees and volunteers, getting local veterinarians on board with the no-kill philosophy and appointing Tutzauer to a vacant board seat.

Tutzauer, the president of Buffalo Humane, emerged as a local leader in the effort to reform SPCA of Niagara in early 2012 after revelations about the wanton destruction of animals in its custody was exposed by the Niagara Gazette. The executive director at the time was fired and SPCA trustees yielded their spots to a new board, elected in May by $25-a-year dues-paying members. Fifteen trustees were chosen from a slate of 24 approved by the former board; Tutzauer was “denied” the opportunity to run for a seat, according to the suit.

The new board is operating in “secret,” the activists’ suit charges. An annual meeting of members, called for in the bylaws, hasn’t been held in several years. Board meetings are “unannounced” and “no minutes of such meetings have been made public,” it claims. The board turned down new memberships after it was installed, and the donations that would have come with them; and it has rebuffed Mrs. Reese’s requests for copies of the amended bylaws and a full listing of members with contact information, it adds.

Peter Reese asserts that the SPCA is a membership corporation, not a board-only corporation, and the trustees are subordinate to the membership, that is, elected merely to carry out its wishes.

He said the post-scandal trustees seized control from the members in part by rewriting portions of the bylaws to raise the annual voting membership fee so high that few will join — while exempting themselves from the fee.

Conceivably, he said, current trustees could keep re-electing themselves and/or their preferred candidates perpertually, as they’re likely to be the only ones with voting privileges.

“This board, elected by the members last May, is trying to get rid of all the members. They’re installing themselves,” he said.

Reese further claimed the board talks the talk, but does not walk the walk, of no-kill animal sheltering.

He openly dismisses the SPCA of Niagara’s reporting of “Asilomar” statistics, or its live release rate of animals adopted out, transferred to another facility or returned to owners, as artificially high. SPCA’s figure doesn’t account for “owner-requested euthanasia (on the basis pets were) unhealthy and untreatable,” according to its own website. No-kill activists complain the shelter’s definition of “unhealthy and untreatable” is too loose.

“They’re doing fake no-kill,” Reese charged. “It’s only a matter of time until they’re broke or they start killing animals again, if they ever stopped.”

Without acknowledging the suit, which was filed Feb. 28, the SPCA board on March 1 issued a two-page shelter progress report, titled “What a difference a year makes ... “

In 2012, the Lockport Road shelter’s “no kill ratio” increased to 99 percent from a historic low of 29 percent in 2011, while its dog and cat adopt-out rate doubled, to 1,568, and it undertook a foster care program that landed temporary homes for over 800 animals, the report said.

The organization also got 244 dogs vaccinated against parvo virus in Niagara Falls, struck up a partnership with Cornell University Hospital for Animals to launch a spay/neuter program this spring, got three trustees certified as animal cruelty investigators and invested in shelter improvements from sanitizing and repainting to new signs, kennel fire doors, a phone system, a tractor and a cargo van, the report said.

SPCA also put professional services — legal advisement, accounting and asset management — out to bid for the first time, to cut costs, according to spokesman Eggert.

After being more than $100,000 “in the red” last year, thanks in part to about $65,000 in unpaid veterinary bills not taken care of by the prior board, the organization’s “books are balanced,” barely, Eggert said. In the most recent payroll period, it had about $100 on hand after expenses including veterinary care, he said.

The board’s March 1 release was not so much a response to the lawsuit as “our side,” Eggert said.

“Mr. Reese is making it look like we’re a bunch of animal killers. That’s as far from the truth as you can get,” he said.

The board is standing firmly by the SPCA of Niagara’s claim of official no-kill status. A shelter can claim the designation so long as its animal save rate is 90 percent or higher, Eggert said. A 100 percent save rate is “impossible,” he added; suffering and dying animals are euthanized.