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A high-profile controversy over a dog's suitability for adoption, coupled with turmoil on the Healdsburg Animal Shelter's board of directors, has caused donors to balk, further jeopardizing completion of a $3.5 million shelter.

Dissension among shelter directors, highlighted by their numerous resignations, has caused donors to question funding the new state-of-the-art shelter, which needs $250,000<NO1><NO><NO1><NO> before it can be occupied.

"I'm not confident with the direction of the shelter now," said Carol Noack, a longtime volunteer who said she is poised to re-write her legacy trust to remove the Healdsburg Animal Shelter and make another non-profit animal welfare group the beneficiary of her estate.

"People who have given in the past to the shelter are now holding off," said Madeline Wallace, a former shelter director who previously helped with fund-raising.

"There's a feeling the state of the shelter is somewhat in chaos and the leadership of the board is dysfunctional," she said.

While members of the Healdsburg City Council have questioned the actions of shelter officials and the transparency of the non-profit agency's finances, police officials say they are satisfied with the organization when it comes to providing animal control services.

The shelter is at the mid-point of a three-year, $115,580 annual contract with the city. It takes in strays and injured animals, responds to complaints of barking or dangerous dogs and animal cruelty, and removes dead animals.

"At this point they are fulfilling their contract obligations," said Police Lt. Kevin Young, who is the liaison between the city and the shelter.

He said the shelter does a good job balancing enforcement, education and care for animals.

"The internal workings of the shelter and the board and the rest of that, are not on our radar. It's not related to our contract," Young said.

Meanwhile, Cash, the large Mastiff/pitbull mix that the shelter once considered a candidate for euthanasia, appears to be thriving at a dog rehabilitation facility in Windsor.

"He is doing really good. It's still early," said Colleen Combs, the owner of King's Kastle, who has custody of the animal and is socializing him with other dogs.

"What he has shown me in 10 days is really beautiful," she said late last week. "(In) his first actual interaction today with one of our pack dogs, he wanted to play and roll over. That's a good sign."

A lawsuit filed by prominent Healdsburg chef Douglas Keane, owner of Cyrus Restaurant, resulted in Cash being released from the shelter earlier this month.

Keane, a volunteer at the shelter, had become fond of the dog and expressed a willingness to adopt him.

Cash was described as a "Gentle Giant" on the shelter's website, an animal of solid muscle but "all squishy softness with a heart of gold and a desire to love and please."

He was advertised to the general public as an undemanding dog, good for an adult home, or a home with grown children.

But that changed after Shelter Executive Director Julie Seal saw signs of aggression and got contrasting assessments from dog experts, including that the 4-year-old animal was not suitable for adoption.

She noted there had been problems with five other dogs that had been adopted out of the shelter after being cleared by the same dog expert that gave Cash a good grade. Instead, they turned on their owners, or bit other dogs.

Volunteers and people who work with dogs note that animal shelters in general, and the cramped 51-year-old Healdsburg facility in particular, can stress the caged dogs and create behavioral problems, much like a prison does for humans.

The shelter on Westside Road is considered "no kill," which by definition means that more than 90 percent of the dogs that enter it leave alive.

"One of the big concerns is Healdsburg dogs are being euthanized and there's a need to get that under control," said Wallace, who served two stints as director.

"Julie is doing a good job of adopting dogs coming in from the county. But there is concern that dogs that need a little more work are being put down," she said.

Seal on Friday said the she is proud of having lowered the euthanasia rate and dramatically increased the adoption rate since she took over last January.

She said the 4 percent kill rate at the Healdsburg shelter is the lowest in the county.

In 2010, 72 dogs were adopted out of the shelter, and that has tripled to 210 dogs this year, according to Seal.

A group of volunteers at the Berkeley animal shelter this week came to the defense of Seal, whom they said has helped find homes for several dogs that were scheduled to be euthanized because of severe overcrowding.

"She puts her heart and soul into the job," said Laura Wagner, a Richmond woman who volunteers at the Berkeley shelter.

In an email, Wagner described the Healdsburg shelter as a "run-down, crumbling building with a leaky roof and kennel doors patched together with baking racks. The kennels are extremely small and it is very easy for a dog to become severely stressed."

But she said the dogs get individual attention, group socialization and exercise. "We were impressed by the dedication of staff and volunteers, doing the best they could with what little they had," she said.

It was the need for a new, airier shelter that motivated the late vintner Rodney Strong and his wife Charlotte to donate a sizeable portion of their estate to the Healdsburg Animal Shelter. The couple were animal lovers who raised Mastiffs and had no immediate survivors.

By the time their estate was settled, their gift was worth almost $2.9 million, according to George Dutton, a director who resigned two weeks ago. Dutton, former treasurer and project manager for the new shelter, said interest earned from the money raised another $200,000 or so.

But efforts to raise an additional $1 million to finish the new shelter across the road, and help provide it with an operating cushion, have fallen short, he said. Only about $200,000 was raised over the past three years.

Dutton said the new shelter needs kennels, toilets, a phone system, acoustical ceiling and other finishing work.

He said the bankruptcy of the general contractor slowed work, but was not the cause for the failure to open the new shelter by now. Instead, he said, it's been the lack of funding. "Right now, it's short about $250,000 to complete," he said.

Dutton said his opposition to granting what he called an excessive pay raise to Seal led to his departure from the shelter board. Directors voted 4-3 to remove him as treasurer and project manager because of his stance, he said, so he resigned.

Seal's salary has never been publicly disclosed. Directors, including Dutton, have declined to do so, and Seal on Friday would not reveal it.

Healdsburg Mayor Gary Plass said it was foolish of the majority of the board to force Dutton to resign after he objected to a salary increase for Seal.

"He's the best guy they had," Plass said.

Seal said the organization currently is doing a "construction audit" with the help of architects donating their time, to determine how much more work is needed on the building.

She said the facility may need to be redesigned, but declined to elaborate.

"We may have to invest more money to outfit the building," she said.

Meanwhile Kate MacMurray, daughter of the late Hollywood star Fred MacMurray, who was named with much fanfare earlier this year as chairwoman of the capital campaign, also submitted her letter of resignation recently, citing personal obligations in 2012. She did not return calls requesting comment.

But the events she hosted at the old MacMurray Ranch every other year helped raise more than $100,000 each time toward the organization's $650,000 annual operating budget.

Dutton said that being able to use the ranch again as a venue is now questionable. He was among four others who have resigned this year from the 10-member board.

The conflicts among board members have varied. Besides Dutton's reluctance to grant a salary increase to Seal, they have included disputes over the influence she has in recommending new board members.

Longtime shelter board President Kathleen McCaffrey did not return calls placed earlier this week. When she was reached Friday she declined comment, saying she was too busy to talk.

Noack, the longtime shelter volunteer, is urging people concerned with the shelter to attend the board meetings, beginning with the next one on Jan. 11, to listen to what happens and "ask tough questions."

"The hope is the focus will go back on the animals and all the turmoil and egos of people will go away," Wallace said.

Seal offered a somewhat similar view. "Ultimately, we hope our supporters will rally and help finish the building so the animals we love so dearly have new comfortable quarters while they await new homes," she said.

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