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The new leaders of the Healdsburg Animal Shelter want to overcome the turmoil and discord of the past few months and focus on the $3.5 million facility that sits empty and bare, but tantalizingly close to completion.

On a tour of the new animal shelter Thursday, they showed off the front rooms where people can visit with a dog they may want to adopt, as opposed to seeing the animal in an old-style, chain-link kennel.

But also apparent to the eye are thin cracks that have appeared on the foundation floor, symbolic of the controversies that have undermined support for the shelter board.

"We're trying to endeavor to get to the bottom of the issue," Bill Anderson, the new board co-chairman, said of the "disconcerting" floor cracks throughout the building.

Anderson, who's been on the shelter board only a few weeks and just took over the reins along with co-chairwoman Sandra Versteegh, said he realizes directors have their work cut out to restore trust in the nonprofit organization.

The shelter has been wracked by high leadership turnover, fundraising failures, complaints of a lack of transparency and a high-profile controversy over animal adoptions.

"It's been mistake after mistake," he said, adding "things weren't thought through" and the timing of some decisions was poor.

But he expressed confidence that the money will be secured from donors to finish the interior of the 7,500-square-foot facility before the end of the year, and that it won't sit much longer as a white-elephant reminder of failed expectations.

"We want to bring people back in the fold," he said, "We want to turn the page. Let's focus on the mission. This really is meant to be a jewel for the community."

He said that despite the setbacks, the shelter continues to fulfill its mission, employ a dedicated staff and maintain an enthusiastic corps of volunteers.

Things apparently are looking up. "We've had several donors step up to the plate in the last week or so who want very much to contribute" to get the new building open, he said.

Anderson estimates it will take a minimum of "several hundred thousand" dollars to complete the building interior, including kennels, toilets, a phone system, an acoustical ceiling and other work.

But he said it likely will be another six weeks before an audit of the shelter's finances is complete, cost estimates for the remaining work are developed and a capital campaign is outlined.

"We want to create something that's self-sustaining," he said.

As a developer and manager of high-end hotel and resorts around the world, including financially distressed properties, Anderson said he is up to the challenge of finishing the troubled shelter building.

The airy, new structure on Westside Road is intended to replace the current cramped, cinder-block building built in 1960 next to the city's corporation yard, across the street from the new building.

Land acquisition and construction were financed largely through a $2.9 million bequest from the estate of the late vintner Rodney Strong and his wife, Charlotte. The shelter was supposed to be complete last fall.

But a further $1 million fund-raising campaign stalled, leaving the organization unable to complete construction and provide a future operating cushion.

The animal shelter has been beset by the turnover of four salaried executive directors in about as many years, including Julie Seal, who resigned suddenly last week. There also has been dissent on the volunteer board, with seven directors leaving in 2011.

There was a high-profile lawsuit filed to prevent euthanasia of a dog when Seal resisted requests to have it adopted. The publicity thrust board leaders into the public eye and raised questions about shelter operations and the status of the unfinished facility.

Frustrated by a lack of answers, some donors threatened to drop their financial support.

When the members of the board of directors decided to close their meetings to the public and subject volunteers to background checks and confidentiality agreements, another uproar ensued.

Longtime shelter supporters and volunteers implored the City Council to help make the organization more accountable, particularly since the city pays it more than $115,000 annually to provide animal-control services in Healdsburg.

Shelter directors are set to make a presentation to the City Council on April 2, but have said they are unlikely by then to have the specific answers to what exactly is needed to open the new building.

For one, they believe modifications are necessary to the design of the incomplete kennel area to allow more flexibility for communal areas for dogs, as well as more efficient heating and air conditioning.

The directors also want to hire a dog behaviorist to help train volunteers and perhaps create a new position of shelter manager in addition to finding a new executive director.

The board said they will hold monthly public forums at the new shelter beginning in April to answer questions about the project.

But some of the latest decisions by the board already are coming under fire, including the decision to spend $60,000 of a new anonymous grant to hire a consultant for the next six months for a fundraising campaign.

Anderson said the contract is going to be reconsidered.

"It's a well-founded criticism, given the timing," he said.

Critics also have questioned the board's decision to hire another architect and accountant.

Retired bank executive George Dutton, former shelter treasurer and board member, said when he left the board in early December, financial information for the organization's operations and capital accounts was updated and reconciled through Oct. 30, with monthly reporting to the board on a regular basis.

"I think it's just overkill," he said of some of the experts who are being hired. "I think it's absolutely unnecessary, a terrible squandering of monies we just don't have available."

But Anderson defended the need for a precise accounting and other refinements.

"We want to go back to the community and say, 'We have to raise this amount, here's what it takes to fix it, let's do it,' " Anderson said.

You can reach Staff Writer

Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.

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