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Healdsburg Animal Shelter directors have closed their meetings to the public and prohibited volunteers from talking freely to the news media, prompting complaints they are trying to avoid scrutiny and "muzzle" critics.

A number of volunteers and donors last week asked the City Council for help in lifting what some described as a "veil of secrecy" at the nonprofit organization.

They also are asking for an accounting of more than $3 million spent on a new, partially built shelter and how much more is needed to complete it.

The growing complaints have prompted the City Council to request a public meeting with shelter directors and to obtain a report on their operations and finances.

Mayor Gary Plass said the shelter's board of directors "are all good people" but suggested there is a need for more transparency.

"When you start closing the community off, they become suspicious. It's not healthy for the community, or the organization," Plass said.

"You have an organization that really exists for the community and they take money from people — private citizens and donors — yet they are closing their meetings to the very same citizens," said Councilwoman Susan Jones.

Longtime shelter President Kathleen McCaffrey declined to be interviewed.

In response to email questions, she wrote "best business practices dictate that the public not participate in official board meetings" unlike in the past because it provides for "greater efficiency."

Last week, eight speakers voiced their concerns to the City Council regarding the direction of the shelter.

"We're all here because we don't know where else to turn," said Janet Stanley, a shelter donor. "We simply would like to know what is being done with our money."

Speakers said they have been given vague answers from shelter directors on fundraising and the status of the new facility on Westside Road, across from the cramped, 50-year-old shelter.

"We have a beautiful facility that is half-built and shut down. That is the sum total of what we know," Stanley said.

In her email responses, McCaffrey said the board would hold a public meeting to discuss what is needed to finish the new shelter and what it will cost once it has "fully investigated and addressed the construction issues with the facility."

The animal shelter was thrust into the spotlight in November with a lawsuit filed by Healdsburg chef Douglas Keane, who was seeking to adopt a large dog and prevent it from being euthanized.

The publicity highlighted disagreements and turnover on the board of directors. Last year, seven resigned from the 10-member body.

In a packed room in January, at the board's final open meeting, the remaining four directors of the shelter heard pointed criticism that the board was dysfunctional and unwilling to answer questions other than in writing.

There were also defenders of the shelter, especially those who applauded its "no kill" certification, the only one among shelters in Sonoma County.

In addition to the shelter's board of directors announcing their meetings no longer would be public, there is concern about a new policy that prohibits volunteers and employees from talking to the media without written permission.

Shelter officials said the policy is intended to ensure "the media receives accurate and appropriate information."

The volunteers, who total about 100, have until Monday to sign the "media contact policy." But some vowed to resign before giving up their rights to speak freely.

Volunteers also are upset with a clause in their written agreement that they must submit to a background check by the organization "if and as it may choose."

"I take major offense with this carte blanche right for them to go into my life in any fashion, for reasons that are not even given," said Dennis Drowty.

As a volunteer for Little League for a dozen years, Drowty said he has willingly submitted to background checks and has nothing to hide. But the animal shelter's policy, he said, is "autocratic."

Shelter officials said in an email that permission to conduct a background check is "industry standard."

City Council members are seeking guidance from the city attorney on the role they can play in mediating problems at the shelter.

"We are their landlord, so to speak, and we do have a contract with them for animal control," Plass said.

The city owns the land the shelter occupies and pays it more than $115,000 annually for animal control services.

As part of the agreement, the shelter does provide the city some revenue and expenditure details but not enough to appease critics.

"We do need to be involved because this is a very, very important part of our community, Plass said. "It's evident by how long it's been around and how many people have donated hundreds of thousands of hours."

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com