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Royal Oak

March 12, 2013

Former employees question animal shelter’s direction

By Chris Jackett
C & G Staff Writer

ROYAL OAK — In the past 20 months, there have been a lot of changes at the local animal shelter.

With a handful of long-time volunteers and employees resigning since July 2011, at least two former employees are pointing fingers at Mayor Pro Tem Patricia Capello, who insists the bulk of the allegations against her are untrue, unfounded or both.

Julie Tirony had volunteered at the Royal Oak Animal Shelter, 1515 N. Edgeworth, since July 2010, becoming a paid employee in May 2011 until she resigned in February 2012 due to a series of ongoing issues.

“Her attitude toward the shelter manager and me had become something I can only describe as venomous,” Tirony wrote in a six-page letter to the City Commission Feb. 22 that accused Capello of micromanaging facility cleanings, among other items. “I feel that Ms. Capello’s insistence on staying involved in this process when she was not involved in any other outward way at the shelter during that time was a means to keep her name out there and attached to a good cause and to the good will that we were creating in the community.”

Tirony alleges that Capello wrote thank-you letters on behalf of the shelter, but signed her own name and City Commission title as a political ploy. Capello addressed the issue at the end of the March 4 City Commission meeting, noting that she had started the practice nearly a decade ago.

“Clearly, she had no idea that I was the one who began this program in 2005 and have written hundreds of letters to not only people in this community, but to people outside this community and outside the state,” Capello said. “But, nevertheless, she has the right to acknowledge and charge as she chooses. I am a public figure.”

Questionable Conditions

Capello said some of the animosity was due to her concern with the state of the shelter, at the time.

“It is true that I was unhappy with the overcrowding, the cleanliness conditions and the general operation of the shelter in July 2011,” Capello said. “There were cats stacked wall to wall, floor to ceiling, and pervasive illness. She has indicated that I did not treat (the staff and volunteers) with courtesy. That is a matter that I think this commission will probably take a look at.

“I left in July 2011 and had nothing to do with the shelter until the mayor asked me to return in the first quarter of 2012, when the conditions had not made sufficient progress.”

Despite Capello’s concerns, Tirony said there was nothing wrong with the shelter and that a no-kill shelter’s job is to house as many pets as possible until homes can be found for them.

“Somewhere during this time, we also had a surprise visit from the Department of Agriculture, because of an anonymous complaint to them about us having ‘too many animals,’” Tirony wrote. “The Department of Agriculture determined that we were not overcrowded and were not violating any rules.”

Resignations occur

Tirony also alleges that Capello was still involved with the shelter after her departure from the Animal Shelter Committee.

Animal Control Officer Gail Briggs — who covers both Royal Oak and Berkley — was appointed to the shelter manager role in January 2012.

Tirony and the former shelter manager quit shortly thereafter in February and March, respectively. Two other volunteers with a combined 13 years on the committee quit in the next few months and were replaced.

“I believe she used her position not only to install her friends on a committee that they would otherwise not have gotten, but also in an effort to retain security for herself on this committee,” Tirony wrote.

Capello said they had earned their keep.

“She accuses me of appointing my friends to the Animal Shelter Committee, ignoring the fact that the last few appointees were long-time — more than five-year — volunteers at the shelter who know how it runs, how it should run,” Capello said. “She also alleges that I appointed them because I needed people to agree with me. They don’t always agree with me, and they continue to volunteer there anyway. It really does help if you know something about how the shelter is supposed to run.”

Retaliation?

Tirony said there have been multiple letters to the city expressing concern with the current shelter operations and whether Capello’s actions violate the city’s ethics ordinance or even the City Charter.

Bloomfield Hills resident Gina Fraser, who began volunteering at the shelter in January 2012 and was hired as an employee in April 2012, said the aforementioned letter from Tirony wrongly cost Fraser her position at the shelter March 6.

“When speaking to (Deputy Police Chief Gordie) Young, I was under the impression that the letter Julie had sent to the commissioners was the reason for the meeting (that occurred between Briggs and Young) and that I was being blamed,” Fraser said via email. “Later, I found out that was exactly what happened. I was accused of ‘riling up’ Julie.”

Fraser said Young asked her March 6 if she was resigning and she said “no,” but then he contacted her later and asked her to return her shelter keys.

“My understanding was that I was being fired, as they asked for the keys,” Fraser said. “DC Young stated that I had given him an oral resignation, which I had not, and I had to return the keys. I replied that I was not resigning and not returning the keys. He threatened to have me arrested for withholding city property. I still have the keys.

“I don’t believe anything that I said or did resulted in my wrongful termination; I strongly believe it was retaliation for Julie’s letter and what Pat believed to be me influencing Julie to write the letter, which is blatantly untrue.”

Police Chief Corrigan O’Donohue confirmed that Fraser no longer worked at the shelter, but couldn’t add much more.

“We can’t comment on those labor issues,” O’Donohue said. “We can say she was an employee and is no longer an employee. She had been a part-time employee for about a year.”

Both Tirony and Fraser said they are worried for the shelter’s future with Capello and Briggs at the helm.

“Briggs is using the Royal Oak facility as a holding pen for animals she is dropping off at the county facility,” Tirony wrote. “This was never done previously, as Berkley has their own facility which should be used for this purpose.”

“There seems to be an ongoing issue with the shelter operating within its scope. It’s not a rescue. We have limited resources and there’s limited space at the shelter,” O’Donohue said.

“Ms. Capello’s involvement has had an adverse effect on the integrity and momentum of the shelter, and the shelter is a reflection of the city,” Tirony wrote. “The Royal Oak Animal Shelter has been one of the few shelters left in this area that was no-kill, and I believe this community was proud of that and will not be happy to discover that these changes have been done quietly and almost secretively.”

For more on the Royal Oak Animal Shelter, visit www.ci.royal-oak.mi.us/portal/community-links/animal-shelter.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Chris Jackett at cjackett@candgnews.com or at (586)279-1110.