MANATEE -- Since Manatee County Animal Services Division returned to the public safety department at the beginning of October, Bob Smith has been at the Palmetto shelter every day.
Smith, who has been the public safety department director since April, wants to get to know the Animal Services staff, see the day-to-day operations and learn in detail how the operation runs.
"It's still a learning curve for me," Smith said at his office in the Palmetto shelter, 305 25th St. W. "I will probably be out here regularly until the new chief comes on board."
After the retirement of Animal Services interim director Bill Hutchison, the division, which reported directly to County Administrator Ed Hunzeker, was moved back to the public safety department. Similar to the county's Marine Rescue and Emergency Medical Services divisions, Animal Services will have a division chief who reports to Smith.
In a Sept. 21 memo to the county commission announcing Hutchison's retirement, Hunzeker said he had discussions with Smith about "the importance of MCAS and our community commitment to the No Kill movement."
"Bob has already proven himself to be a strong leader in our organization, and he understands the high profile nature of Animal Services," Hunzeker said in the memo. "I believe he is well prepared to resume oversight for Animal Services and to hire a new chief who will continue to lead the goals of being a No Kill community."
Since taking over the public safety department, Smith said he has tried to instill an atmosphere of transparency and accountability, which is something he wants to ensure carries over to Animal Services.
"I want to be as transparent as we possibly can, and that we are open and available to the public, and people who have questions can get them answered and people who need information can get it and that we are accountable to the citizens of the county just like the rest of public safety department is," Smith said, adding that his long-term goal is getting a "senior leadership staff out here that is effective and efficient."
National search for next Animal Services division chief
By as soon as Monday, the position of Animal Services Division chief will be posted not only on Manatee County's website but nationally with several animal rescue and animal services associations, in addition to the International City/County Management Association website, Smith said.
"We really want to do a national search," Smith said. "We will get them to come in and do the interviews. Our hope is to have someone in the position full-time permanently by the end of the calendar year."
As the search begins for the next chief, Smith appointed Joel Richmond, enforcement supervisor at Animal Services, as the interim division chief, which has been recently criticized by some in the community. Richmond was most recently involved in the high-profile Padi incident, which received international attention.
"I could have made the safe choice that would have kept me out of hot water, but I made the choice that was best for the division and the best for the operation," Smith said.
As the most senior employee at the Palmetto shelter, Richmond is the "most knowledgeable on the day-to-day operations here on this campus," Smith said, adding that it's really not different from when Hutchison was in charge as Smith will make all high-level decisions.
Richmond's focus will be on the daily operations, the staff, shelter and timecards, Smith said.
"For me, it was a no-brainer," Smith said. "I realize I could have done something else and kept myself out of hot water but that wouldn't have been the right thing to do. I did what was best of the division."
Smith said he will concentrate on hiring a new chief.
In finding the next Animal Services leader, Smith said the county wanted to do its due diligence by conducting a national search.
"We don't want to restrict ourselves to any one particular area," he said. "We want to open it up because a lot is riding on this position. This is a very high profile position. This is a pretty large operation. Lots of assets, lots of people, lots of animals. We want to make sure we have the best candidate possible. We want to turn over every stone we possibly can in our search."
While someone with animal services and animal rescue background is essential, Smith said the biggest focus outside of that is management and leadership.
"We want to focus primarily on management and leadership," he said. "It is pretty significant sized staff out here. The staff needs oversight. The staff needs positive influences and morale boosts if nothing else."
Smith added that next leader should also have heavy budget experience.
"You are dealing with contracts," he said. "You are dealing with outside organizations. You are dealing with the county budget and capital improvements."
The next Animal Services chief doesn't necessarily have to have been a director or chief but should have some level of a senior executive management role in a previous organization, Smith said.
"We'd like somebody who has had leadership or an executive level role in an organization if not a similar size maybe even larger," he said.
During the interview process, there will be multiple panels -- both internal to Animal Services and internal to public safety, Smith said.
"We are also going to bring in some outside folks to participate," he said. "It will be a pretty in-depth interview process."
Commissioner Carol Whitmore said she thinks a national search is important.
"What we need in a chief is a leader that will (help) the employees and the community to work together," she said. "Being a good leader is setting by example."
Animal Services fits under public safety
Prior to Hutchison's year-tenure at the helm of Manatee County Animal Services, the division was under the public safety department. Smith said he thinks it is a good fit.
"The public safety department as a whole is tasked with protecting the citizens and the visitors of Manatee County, and Animal Services is tasked with that as well so it's the perfect fit," Smith said.
Many people focus on the shelter side of the division and adoptions but there is more than that, Smith said.
"There is a public safety element as well that is just as big if not bigger: Protecting the citizens and the visitors and responding to injured animals," Smith said. "We work very closely in Animal Services with the police departments across the county. We respond to accidents if there is an animal involved. I think it's a perfect fit."
While Whitmore initially expressed hesitation when Hunzeker announced that Animal Services would return to public safety, she said she no longer has those concerns because Smith has a straight line to Hunzeker.
"I trust Bob," she said. "He has done a really good job with public safety."
Continuing to move in a positive direction
While there has been positive changes for the division, which has been at the forefront of controversy in the community, Smith said the negative aspects overshadow the positives.
"Animals are a heart string item and it always tugs on the heart strings," Smith said. "People tend to get emotional but we tend to get wrapped around the negative things a little too much and it overshadows the positive. We've done some great things in this county even before I came on board."
Smith points to the fact that Manatee County in 2011 became the first no-kill agency in the state, the live-release rate has been consistently in the mid-90s and there have successful adoption events such as Adoptapalooza.
"I really want to focus on the positive side of things," Smith said. "We are doing some great things. They are just getting overshadowed by some of the negativity at this point."
Claire Aronson, Manatee County reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024. Follow her on Twitter@Claire_Aronson.