Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker took a promising step to tamp down the public outcry over the failings of the Animal Services Division by luring Bill Hutchison out of retirement to lead the organization. His action last week followed a commitment by county commissioners to change the division.
Hutchison's strong reputation among animal rescue and foster groups should help heal the rift that grew out of the outrage over the county transfer of hundreds of animals to a substandard East Manatee shelter, which was raided by authorities earlier this year. Animal Services employees knew for years that conditions there were deficient.
Then, last month an angry crowd of about 100 descended on a meeting of the Manatee County Animal Services Advisory Board to accuse division employees of cruelty to animals and disrespect toward the public.
Before that, the county had ordered an outside audit of Animal Services, under fire since February after the Manatee County Sheriff's Office led a raid on Napier's Log Cabin Horse and Animal Shelter.
Some 300 animals were rescued from deplorable conditions, including poor sanitation and a lack of food and water. The shelter owners have been charged with cruelty to animals.
The MCSO's exhaustive report on Napier's did not find sufficient evidence to criminally charge any Animal Services employees with official misconduct, but the division's all too permissive oversight of the shelter became painfully clear.
The audit by Matrix Consulting Group is expected to arrive in October, and a national search for a new division leader may follow. In the meantime, Hutchison will served as interim Animal Services director -- an outstanding selection.
As the county's public safety director before his retirement, Hutchison was instrumental in the adoption of Manatee's vaunted no-kill policy -- the first in Florida. He replaces Kris Weiskopf, who is no longer with the division. The two teamed up to implement no Kill in 2011.
In announcing Hutchison's appointment, Hunzeker renewed the county's commitment to No Kill, which has been very successful. Today, Animal Services holds a "save rate" of more than 90 percent -- far higher than the 56 percent logged in 2011.
No kill emphasizes adoption, return to owners and transfers to rescue organizations. Animal Services only euthanizes ill and dangerous animals.
The county's partnerships with those dedicated rescue groups looks more auspicious as almost a dozen united to form Manatee United for Pets. The umbrella organization, unveiled last week, is set to coordinate fund-raising, hold joint events and push no kill to greater heights.
Hutchison vows to improve the save rate, too, as well as boost the training of Animal Services staff and better vet the division's rescue partners, that coming in the wake of failures with the Napier operation.
This month, Manatee County also hired a new coordinator of volunteers to further unite stakeholders.
Combined, the county is moving toward a comprehensive reform of Animal Services.
Just as important, Hunzeker admits the county did not provide additional resources or staffing when no kill was implemented, likely contributing to the agency's struggles with the policy. That should translate into action to improve the county shelter.
Those are all vital responses in order to restore credibility and accountability and rebuild public trust in the agency.
And we welcome Bill Hutchison's leadership on this endeavor.