Some commissioners say more time spent on animals than issues facing Manatee County residents

Janiya Thomas
Janiya Thomas

MANATEE -- After animal activists spoke about recent killings at Manatee County Animal Services, some county commissioners Tuesday decried that once again more time is being spent discussing the fate of animals rather than other issues.

"Three, four hours of that each meeting will deter us from what we need to do with affordable housing, health care, law enforcement, you name it," Commissioner Charles Smith said. "They have a right to say what they said. They have a right to come here."

Commissioner Carol Whitmore, who attended the meeting by phone, pointed out there was no mention at Tuesday's meeting of 11-year-old Janiya Thomas, who was found dead in a freezer last month.

"What bothers me today is we have Janiya and nothing has been brought up about that," Whitmore said. "No letters to the editor. Not one person said anything today. We all love animals, people, but an 11-year-old and nobody has even mentioned it."

Smith echoed Whitmore about Janiya's death.

"Where is the discussion on that?" Smith asked, also asking about discussion on gun violence.

"These are the things that are important to Manatee County countywide. When you say you are going to come over and over again and repeat the same thing, that's a filibuster in my opinion. I am sick of it. I am totally sick of it. My constituents are sick of this issue."

During Tuesday's meeting, animal activists brought up recent killings at Animal Services, criticized Joel Richmond, acting chief of Animal Services, and brought up that a dog pictured on an adoption event flier was killed days before the event. On Tuesday, commissioners admitted that it was an error to have the dog's picture on the flier.

In October, Animal Services euthanized 30 dogs as 354 animals were brought into the shelter that month, according to Bob Smith, public safety department director.

Manatee County resident Agatha Mantanes asked whether Animal Services is "taking steps backwards" and assured the commissioners that they are back to regularly attending commission meetings.

"Animal Services has reared its ugly head again," Mantanes said.

Commissioner Larry Bustle told Commission Chairwoman Betsy Benac that the "power of the gavel is yours. Tell that person they are out of line."

"I don't want to sit up here one more time (and listen) to (people) trash talk this board or anybody that works for this board," Bustle said. "I am going to walk out.. ... Absolutely do not allow that. It's not acceptable."

Benac said "it isn't clear to me what is being asked other than as you said, to trash people."

"They don't like what is going on so they are going to be here every meeting doing the same thing," Benac said.

Commissioner Robin DiSabatino defended the activists, saying it takes courage to stand up at meetings and address the commission.

"This is their only way to get to all of us at one time rather than making several appointments," DiSabatino said. "I understand that. ... I understand their concerns and I understand their frustrations. They are passionate about the animals. Let's hear what they have to say."

DiSabatino said one of the animal activists' frustrations is seeing the breakdown of how the additional money authorized in February for Animal Services was spent.

"I don't think to this day we have an on-site vet," she said. "That's a lot why they are upset."

County Administrator Ed Hunzeker said they don't have the office space for a new vet in the Palmetto shelter.

"We are working on that," he said. "To think there is chaos in the organization, there is not. It is running smoothly." With 122 dogs and 117 cats in the shelter, which is designed to house 80 dogs, Hunzeker said it is really a challenge for employees.

"When you get the volume of animals that we have to deal with, it's almost inhumane to keep the facility overcrowded," he said.

Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said the commission's primary job is to take care of the quality of life of for Manatee County residents.

"A lot of people that talk to me want to know why it is we spend more time talking about animals than we do human beings," Baugh said. "I think it is a good question. We all love our animals, but when it starts being that you are spending more time about Animal Services than you are for projects for the citizens of this county, something is wrong. We are missing something. We've got to get this straightened out. ... We really need to straighten this out with the public so we can move past Animal Services and deal with problems we have at hand with our community such as health care."

Claire Aronson, Manatee County reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024. Follow her on Twitter@Claire_Aronson.