Almost eight years after the SPCA of Niagara was rocked by charges of mismanagement and maltreatment of the animals in its care, “alarms” are again being raised at the organization.
On New Year’s Day 2012, the Lockport Road shelter was rocked by revelations from a Gazette investigation showing the agency was engaged in the mass killing of animals. The probe, initiated by complaints by whistleblowers in the organization, detailed the euthanization of 473 cats and 100 dogs in a two and a half month period, as well as claims that the then executive director failed to routinely provide the minimal amount of medical attention necessary to treat the injured or surrender animals placed in the shelter’s care.
The executive had also presided over the mass departure or firings of most of the shelter’s veteran staff.
After an independent investigation of the shelter’s operations, by the former executive director of the Erie County SPCA, confirmed the charges, the executive director was fired and the agency’s entire board of directors resigned.
Now the shelter is again in turmoil after the resignation of three of its board members on Wednesday. Since January, six of what were then the agency’s 12 current board members have quit, citing what one described as “systemic disfunction.”
The resignations have left the shelter, whose by-laws call for 13 directors, without a board that can legally meet and conduct business.
One of the former board members told the Gazette, “The ship is sinking.”
Board members Bryan Barish, Donna Shepard and Jennifer Pitarresi tendered their resignations after what was described as a contentious board meeting that centered on demands for changes in the shelter’s operations. The departing directors leveled withering criticisms of the board chair, Susan Agnello-Eberwein, and the shelter’s Executive Director Timothy Brennan.
Reached Saturday night, Agnello-Eberwein disputed that the all the resignations stemmed from issues surrounding the shelter’s operations. She said Bob Richardson, a long-time board member and the board president, at that time, was “burned-out” and that Nicolas Pelosino and Dan Mezhir has found board service “too time-consuming.”
She suggested that Barish and Pitarresi were upset with an amendment to the organization by-laws that would impose term limits on directors.
“I’m a firm believe in term limits for everyone,” Agnello-Eberwein said.
She described Shepard as “attached to the hip” of Barish and Pitarresi.
“I’m very disappointed in Jennifer,” Agnello-Eberwein said.
The current board president described the three most recent board departures as having been “disruptive” and said, “That’s sad.”
While acknowledging the concerns that the board members had expressed over shelter operations, Agnello-Eberwein said Barish, Pitarresi and Shepard tendered their resignation despite the establishment of a new quality assurance committee, to be led by board secretary Jennifer Ruggiero.
“We know there were concerns about quality assurance,” Agnello-Eberwein insisted. “These three people are doing nothing but trying to upset the SPCA and I’m very disappointed with this. This is a misconception between the old board members and the new board members. It’s like a witch hunt and I’m taking great offense to they’re trying to rip us apart.”
In his resignation, Barish wrote, “I have recently lost all confidence in the leadership of this organization.”
Barish, who was a member of the board that took control of the shelter in 2012 in the wake of the last scandal, has served as secretary, vice president and president of the board since that time.
The veteran board member said he has been “sounding the alarm for 12 months with no action.” “I can no longer affiliate myself with this organization,” he wrote.
Among Barish’s charges are “cover-ups and secret meetings of the president, the refusal of the current executive team to follow the by-laws, failure to properly address operational problems within the shelter, failure to address and the cover-up of several medical concerns (and) allowing the executive director to misrepresent himself and his staff’s actions and be insubordinate to several board members.”
Shepard’s letter of resignation echoed Barish’s communication.
“After months of trying to ring the alarm and get the board to make changes for the benefit of the animals, I see it was to no avail,” she wrote. “I can’t close my eyes to the animal care issues or irresponsible use of donor funding. I don’t feel I can live up to my fiduciary responsibility and stay.”
Shepard cited what she called “the neglect and incompetence of the staff” and a failure to reconcile the responsibilities of Brennan and Shelter Manager Lauren Zaninovich as evidence of failures at the shelter.
“I can’t continue on in the direction we are going,” Shepard wrote. “Since working on making changes to fix the problems wasn’t an option, I have no choice but to leave.”
Shepard said the organization was failing in its responsibility to both the animals and donors.
Pitarresi said she had watched the shelter recover from the 2012 upheaval during her seven-year tenure on the board of directors and had eagerly looked forward to Brennan’s arrival, with a focus on corporate development that would “take us to the ‘next level.’ “
“Little did we imagine that the next level would be down,” she wrote in her resignation letter.
In her resignation, Pitarresi decried what she said was the board’s “mantra” to “stay out of operations” at the shelter. The four-page letter contains a long list of concerns including “turn(ing) a blind eye to obvious policy breaches.”
Internal agency documents, reviewed by the Gazette, allege at least four breaches of the board’s approved euthanasia policy since January.
Pitarresi also charges that the board and staff have treated concerns by donors and animal advocates as “assaults instead of feedback.”
“I was there for seven years,” Pitarresi told the Gazette. “I felt (my resignation) was necessary, given that I kept hitting a brick wall. I knew the community would speak up if we couldn’t make change from the inside.”