MANATEE -- The Manatee County administrator announced Tuesday afternoon an outside firm will evaluate Manatee County Animal Services in the wake of concerns raised by the investigation into allegations of animal cruelty at an East Manatee County animal rescue.
County Administrator Ed Hunzeker made his announcement at the conclusion of the Manatee County Board of Commissioners meeting Tuesday afternoon.
The county has been under scrutiny since Napier's Log Cabin Horse and Animal Sanctuary, 20010 State Road 64, was raided Feb. 5 by a multi-law enforcement effort led by the Manatee County Sheriff's Office. Roughly 300 animals were rescued from what investigators termed "deplorable" conditions.
Owners Alan and Sheree Napier have been arrested and face 29 counts of animal cruelty.
Alan Napier was charged with 15 counts of animal cruelty and one count of unlawful solicitation of funds. Sheree Napier was charged with 14 counts of animal cruelty.
The Napiers could face more charges in the ongoing investigation.
The Manatee County Commission received a letter Thursday from the Animal Services Advisory Board stating it felt misled by information received from Animal Services officials regarding the Napier operation.
Following the raid, the county directed Clerk of Courts R.B. "Chips" Shore to conduct an internal audit of Animal Services on how it investigated complaints about the Napiers. Shore recently suspended the audit, however, citing the ongoing criminal investigation.
Commissioner Michael Gallen pushed for action from the board.
"It is my opinion that the trust in Animal Services is in question in the community," Gallen said.
Gallen asked if there was not enough evidence already to take action against Animal Service employees even without findings from the criminal investigation.
"Isn't there enough out there for an administrative leave?" Gallen asked. "I felt like we should do something in the meantime with the individuals who were directing or advising the Advisory Board."
Hunzeker proposed a different approach.
"We are committed to constantly and consistently improving our operations and we would be in short order contracting with an independent outside firm to evaluate all policies, procedures, protocols, practices, staffing plan, facilities and report back to the board when we have facts," Hunzeker said. "There is a lot of chatter out there in the world of social media and even in the letter you received from the Animal Services Advisory Board that is willfully short of facts."
Hunzeker cautioned the board not to jump to conclusions.
"We have in this country a presumption of innocence," Hunzeker said. "We will deal with it once we have facts."
Hunzeker promised a plan for action would be included when the outside audit is made public.
Some board members said they were concerned by Animal Services emailing updated agreement documents to animal rescue groups Thursday. The email said rescue partners "would refrain from negative comments or posts on any online or social media platforms" regarding the Manatee County Animal Services operations. Some rescue organizations, outraged by the MCAS demand, threatened to stop taking animals from the county shelter.
Commissioners were upset, too.
"That's what floored me was that the policy was changed and we weren't informed," Gallen said.
Public Safety Director Ron Koper acknowledged the line added to the updated agreement caused a social media uproar. Still, he asked rescue groups to refrain from bashing Animal Services.
"We should as business partners be respectful of each other," Koper said. "It can be removed. At this point it is a proposed change."
Commissioner Vanessa Baugh directed Koper to remove that specific line about not commenting on MCAS operations.
"The bottom line is this has been a big black eye for our county," Baugh said. "Before anything else is sent out to the public, meet with your commissioners and get your advisory board involved, because that's their job. We want to help but we can't help if we don't know."
Jessica De Leon, Herald law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter @JDeLeonn1012.