MANATEE -- Bill Hutchison, a retired county employee, will become the interim leader of Manatee County's troubled Animal Services Division, officials said Wednesday.
The division's current chief, Kris Weiskopf, who spearheaded the county's "no kill" effort, has been offered a transfer to a job in another department, they said.
Hutchison will report directly to County Administrator Ed Hunzeker rather than to Public Safety Director Ron Koper, Hunzeker said during a press conference Wednesday at the county administration building.
The Animal Services Di
vision has been under fire from animal welfare activists and other critics since authorities raided an East Manatee animal shelter that had taken in animals from the county and found evidence of abuse. The two owners of Napier's Log Cabin Horse & Animal Sanctuary have been charged with animal cruelty and fraud.
A national search for a new division leader may take place after an audit by an outside firm of the animal services operation is completed in October, Hunzeker told the Bradenton Herald.
Hutchison retired last year after serving as both the county's public safety director and its IT director. He was public safety director when the no-kill effort was started in 2011.
He is resigning a post-retirement position as director of the Humane Society of Lakewood Ranch to take the job at Animal Services.
The new Animal Services chief didn't yet know either his salary or his title, but he said he hoped he would be "moving fast."
"The adoption rate in the county needs to be better and the facilities need to be better," he said. "The location that we're in now doesn't really lend itself to a full-fledged public adoption program, so that's one of the things we'll be working on."
More training and better vetting of the division's animal rescue partners are also on his agenda, he said.
Hutchison has a "proven track record of success as a leader in this organization, and is already well-known and respected in the animal community," Hunzeker said.
Hunzeker said he thanked Weiskopf for his efforts, and offered him a code enforcement position, but Weiskopf may take some time to consider the offer.
Weiskopf could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Also moving to Animal Services will be Peyt Dewar, now a county nuisance abatement coordinator.
County Commissioner Carol Whitmore called the leadership change "a good thing."
"I'm glad that Ed (Hunzeker) looked at all the facts that were in front of him, and I'm glad he actually made a step in the right direction," said Whitmore, who is the official liaison between the commission and the Animal Services Division.
"In order to accomplish what we want with our (animal) rescues, we need to be able to have a good working relationship with the rescues and Animal Services," she said. "I feel, and Ed has assured me many months ago, he would look into this and make necessary changes, so I'm glad he really has."
Lisa Williams, representing Bradenton's Moonracer No Kill Animal Rescue Inc., welcomed the change.
"We're happy," Williams said after the press conference. "I think there will be a change and a positive moving forward. I think it will make a difference."
In 2011, Manatee County became the first operation of its kind in Florida to institute a no-kill policy.
No-kill animal shelters emphasize adoption, return to owners and transfers to rescue groups rather than killing animals, except when they are ill or considered dangerous.
Asked whether the leadership changes constituted a "no confidence" vote for Weiskopf, Hunzeker said, "It might sound that way, but I've looked at all the data from the sheriff's operation, from emails, and I think he's the one that led us to 90 percent No Kill."
In 2011, the county's animal shelters recorded a 56 percent "live release" rate, also known as a "save rate," but now their save rate is above 90 percent, Hunzeker said.
But the Animal Services Division, which employs 23, has endured months of controversy in connection with the animal cruelty case involving the Napier shelter.
Earlier this month, sheriff's investigators concluded there was insufficient evidence to file criminal charges against county employees in connection with the Napier shelter, where the county sent hundreds of animals over many years despite documented substandard conditions.
But Hunzeker said the sheriff's findings did not preclude him from making changes in Animal Services.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.