Multnomah County commissioners on Tuesday scrutinized a compilation of years-old reports and audits of the county animal shelter, months after shelter overcrowding and mismanagement reached a boiling point.
In January, shelter managers announced they stopped accepting stray animals for one week due to insufficient staffing. The county had to pull employees from other departments to reopen the shelter’s adoption floor, allowing the public to meet pets they were considering adopting — a service the shelter hadn’t provided since the start of the pandemic.
At their regular board briefing Tuesday morning, some commissioners wondered how they could better track department audits and prevent the failure of basic services.
“It is obviously incredibly concerning to hear about the years of recommendations that weren’t followed up on and implemented,” Commissioner Susheela Jayapal said.
The county auditor’s office in 2016 issued a long list of recommendations for Multnomah County Animal Services to improve its environment for staffers, adopters and the animals in its care. The office released another report in 2018 noting little progress on those recommendations. County leaders at the time didn’t take significant action to ensure shelter managers made changes.
Jaypayal said commissioners have a formalized way of responding to audit reports, but it doesn’t include continually following up with department heads.
She also criticized shelter leaders for not bringing other reports from outside consulting agencies to the commissioners’ attention. Recommendations from those reports, as well as the auditor’s, were compiled into a series of documents for commissioners to review as part of Chair Jessica Vega Pederson’s plan to address the shelter’s struggles.
Those recommendations called on shelter leaders to streamline record-keeping for several crucial shelter operations, like when and why euthanasia drugs were used, the details of dogs’ bite histories and how they were handled, and whether animals had received daily enrichment, like toys or walks.
Auditors in 2016 and 2018 noted that insufficient record-keeping meant many animals weren’t getting the quality care they needed. Staff adopted some out early, leading owners to struggle reclaiming their pets. Some dogs weren’t getting daily walks or attention, which can lead to behavioral deterioration in a stressful shelter environment. And, as OPB reported earlier this year, tensions heightened between staff and managers.
Vega Pederson said this compilation of past reports is the first phase of her plan to improve conditions at the shelter. The next phases involve community outreach, then a summary report.
Vega Pederson joined the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners in 2017 and was elected as chairperson in January. She said this new role enables her to hold department leaders accountable.
“I’m able to not just see what’s happening and know what’s happening at a deeper level, but actually call for action and make changes happen in a much more meaningful way,” she said in an interview with OPB.
Vega Pederson said she rallied the county’s emergency management department to assist in reopening the shelter to in-person visits in January, so people would be more inclined to adopt pets and free up kennel space. She also pointed to her outlined plan as a sign she is taking action.
At the board meeting Tuesday, Commissioner Sharon Meieran wondered if the current plan is enough.
Meieran highlighted an incident from earlier this month, when the shelter lost track of a dog that viciously attacked a Portland runner, as reported by the Oregonian/OregonLive. Shelter managers subsequently changed policies so all dogs that severely bite someone must be impounded at the shelter for at least 10 days, instead of being quarantined at home.
“And that was done in response to some reporting in the press,” Meieran said. “It seems like we respond to things in the press, then we make some urgent changes.”
She also noted that it has taken county staff four months to compile old reports, which she said “did not seem like urgency.”
“We use the words ‘urgency’ and we use the words ‘real time’ and ‘we’re going to make progress improvements,’ but what does that mean?” Meieran said.
The county auditor’s office is scheduled to start reviewing the shelter services department again in May, which could offer the first comprehensive documentation of changes made since this year’s break down at the county shelter.