Besieged leaders of the Healdsburg Animal Shelter engaged in often testy exchanges with their critics Wednesday, some of whom want to take over the organization and push a stalled new shelter to completion.
In the first public forum inside the troubled $3.5 million building, the new co-chair of the shelter's board of directors said he did not want to place blame for deficiencies that include non-functional kennel areas, lack of an animal isolation area and poor air circulation in the holding areas.
"I have absolutely no interest in pointing fingers," Bill Anderson, the new co-leader of the board, told the audience of about 50 people. "I could care less about the drama. The point is we have a problem. We have a great building. Let's put the energy into fixing the problems and moving forward."
He acknowledged there are significant challenges to opening the building, including a concrete floor that will require at least $300,000 to repair because of "cracking, heaving and separating."
He said the board has instructed its attorney to file "appropriate claims to recover the cost of this repair." But he added "the feeling is we don't have a major structural issue," and the board hopes to complete fundraising and open the facility this fall.
But board critics, including former shelter volunteers, said Anderson spurned offers to meet with some of them and was unwilling to disclose which animal experts he is working with to resolve design problems.
"You have been good at avoiding people in our own backyard who want to help," said Toni Lisoni, a Healdsburg attorney. She is a board member in a new animal welfare group called Green Dog Rescue Project, which wants to take over the operation of the shelter.
She said Anderson had canceled an appointment with Green Dog founder Colleen Combs, who has criticized the new shelter as part of the old model that isolates dogs against their communal pack nature, leading to "kennel crazed" animals.
"I won't do business with people who take shots and go after the shelter," Anderson said. "Who wants to spend time with someone so critical?"
Combs replied that the letter she wrote in the Healdsburg Tribune was "not a potshot at the Healdsburg Animal Shelter," but a disagreement with the way kennels are generally operated nationwide.
At one point Anderson said, "all you guys want to do is create a problem," and he mentioned some of the public criticism that had been directed at him at this week's City Council meeting. In particular he was upset with Lisoni's comment that his background as a hotel developer made him more qualified to build an "animal spa" rather than a shelter.
The question and answer session devolved to the point that Vicky Brown of No Kill Sonoma County said mediation was needed.
"You need a mediator to learn how to work together," she said. "It's for the animals of Healdsburg, because you guys don't know how."
In the end both Anderson and Lisoni apologized.
"Our goal is transparency. There's a lot to fix, both organizationally and with this (building). I apologize for getting heated," Anderson said. "There is no intent not to include people from the community. I don't want to be under a microscope."
The shelter has been beset with leadership turnover, fund-raising failures and controversy over animal adoptions. Problems with the new facility include the bankruptcy of the general contractor.