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Whidbey animal contract changes made to keep group at bay
Oak Harbor and Island County officials are hoping a few changes to its service agreements with the Whidbey Animal’s Improvement Foundation may stem a flood of public records requests.
Over the past month, each has renewed its existing annual service contract with the non-profit animal shelter but only after making language adjustments that close what some officials have called an exploited “loophole” that resulted in unreasonable public records requests.
According to Oak Harbor Police Chief Rick Wallace, who is charged with handling the city’s animal control problems, members the Whidbey Animal Guild, or WAG, have “inundated” the city over the past year with requests for documents that he says went beyond Oak Harbor’s responsibilities.
“Any reports you can think of that could be requested were being asked for,” Wallace said.
Betty Kemp, director of Island County General Services, reported a similar experience. She said the past year has been difficult in that her department has been lambasted with large records requests that she also claims the county was not required to supply.
But WAG founding member Barbara Moran said the quest for WAIF records isn’t just some senseless attempt to overburden local government. The data is needed so WAG can qualify for grant money and she questioned why public officials are going to such lengths to stifle the flow of what she claims are public documents.
“One man’s loophole is another man’s access to public information,” Moran said.
According to Kemp, the problem was rooted in the interpretation of the county’s existing contract with WAIF. It specified that animals found in rural Island County would go to the shelter but remain under county ownership for a period of five days. On the sixth, they become the property of WAIF.
But because the agreement’s language was broadly worded, Kemp said WAG members claimed they were entitled to animal records that went far beyond the five-day period.
“They want to know what’s happening with those dogs three months later,” Kemp said.
Oak Harbor’s service agreement is similar but instead of a five-day period, the city is under contract for six days of service and records.
Moran said the records requests are from members of a data-gathering WAG subcommittee whose sole purpose is to compile statistics so it can qualify for grant money that would allow WAG to open a no-kill shelter that could take some of the load off WAIF’s Coupeville and Oak Harbor facilities.
WAIF describes itself as a minimal-kill operation with an enviable record of keeping animals alive through adoption, fostering, or just keeping them in the shelter for an extended period.
While Moran would not speculate on any alleged illegal activity, she claimed the quest for information has led her to question the organization’s record keeping.
“There are detailed records you’re supposed to maintain if you’re killing animals with chemicals,” Moran said.
She claimed there are large “gaps” in the information, that it’s disorganized, and that animal ID numbers have been incorrectly recorded.
But Chief Wallace said WAG members have made “egregious accusations” that go way beyond questioning WAIF’s record keeping habits, such as euthanizing animals and then secretly burying them. He also said the city isn’t working to stifle any information; rather, the city is still making six days of animal records available along with monthly and quarterly statistics supplied by WAIF. The contract change only makes the city’s obligations clear, he said.
“We didn’t change the substance, we just clarified the practical application of the language,” Wallace said.
Steve Paysse, executive director for WAIF, also disputes Moran and other WAG members’ claims as false. In fact, he said the non-profit has been repeatedly slandered despite the organization’s best efforts to supply animal records that go back years. As a non-governmental group, Paysse claims WAIF is not legally obligated to supply any records other than those specified in the contracts with Oak Harbor and Island County. However, in the spirit of transparency, he claims the animal shelter voluntarily adheres to some state reporting rules that don’t apply to the organization.
“We have made them available,” he said. “We’re not trying to hide anything.”
But Paysse admits they don’t supply all their records, especially to some WAG members. He said their requests became so exhaustive that they began to impede business at the Coupeville shelter. To limit the disruption, records have been made available between 2 and 3 p.m. on Fridays only. And even then, only records outlined in the state rules and the local contracts are supplied.
“As our lawyer advised us, you don’t give information to the enemy when you are not required to,” Paysse said.
According to Moran, stories about WAG members making fantastical claims about secret burials are “ridiculous.” That kind of “foolishness” and WAIF’s attempts to vilify WAG members as “cuckoos” is standing in the way of a better animal shelter system on Whidbey Island, she said.
“I wish WAIF would understand that what we’re trying to do would also benefit them,” Moran said.