Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing got a new title on Friday, Oct. 20 – “interim Guilford County animal services director.”
County managers in North Carolina, and other states for that matter, usually spend most of their day in a quiet, cushy office, but, for the immediate future at least, Lawing will be spending a lot more of his time in a noisy, odor-filled animal shelter.
This move is Guilford County’s latest effort to take control of a problem-riddled shelter that’s now failed two consecutive state inspections. The change comes after a rash of complaints in recent weeks from rescue groups, volunteers and others who have been expressing concern about the shelter’s practices and operations.
Until the Oct. 20 change, Deputy County Manager Clarence Grier had been serving as interim Animal Services director. Grier had held that job since the resignation of former Guilford County Animal Services Director Drew Brinkley on Wednesday, July 26.
Brinkley quit hours after the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services levied fines against the shelter for a failure to provide dogs proper shelter from the sun. Inspectors found 12 dogs on a very hot day that did not have shade or a way to get out of the sun. In a subsequent visit from inspectors, some dogs were found with no access to water.
The Guilford County Animal Shelter has failed two consecutive inspections and the reports from the Department of Agriculture show that the shelter didn’t even correct some problems that were specifically pointed out by inspectors in previous visits.
The new move of making Lawing the temporary head of the shelter is being billed as an “administrative decision,” but it’s common knowledge that some county commissioners have been very unhappy in recent months with the inability of the county-run shelter in the third largest county in the state to pass an inspection and they are also not pleased that it continues to be fined.
Guilford County is currently attempting to find a permanent new animal services director, but sources familiar with that search say the county was on the verge of filling that position and were very excited about a woman from a northern state who was coming to Guilford County to run the shelter. However, at the last minute, her employer made a counter offer enticing enough to keep her in that job – meaning Guilford County had to restart its search for a new director.
According to the Guilford County Human Resources Department, the county received 160 applications for the animal services director position, and 53 of those applicants met the qualifications that were laid out by the county.
Several county commissioners said this week that Guilford County has excellent candidates in its sights and is very likely to hire a new shelter director soon – but the estimates of the time that that will take vary from a couple of weeks to a couple of months. In the meantime, however, Lawing is the new top dog at the shelter.
With the current shelter quandary, county leaders considered handing over the shelter responsibility to the Sheriff’s Department, as the county has done at times in the past. It doesn’t appear as though that discussion took very long. Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes stated in an email, “They asked. I declined.”
In the ’90s, when the shelter had major problems, Guilford County turned the responsibility of the shelter over to the Sheriff’s Department, which improved the situation greatly. Also, after a huge 2015 shelter scandal that involved the neglect and mistreatment of a large number of animals, the Sheriff’s Department helped run the shelter until a new director could be found. But that wasn’t an option this time around.
Commissioner Skip Alston said this week that this latest move is meant to provide more oversight at the shelter.
“We’ve asked the county manager to take a ‘hands on’ approach,” Alston said. “We have asked Marty to take on more of that responsibility himself. We don’t want anymore hiccups.”
Alston added, “This is no reflection on Clarence.”
He said Grier has had many additional responsibilities on top of the shelter and it was difficult for anyone to take on all those obligations and be expected to keep constant watch over the shelter as well.
“It’s an awesome task,” Alston said.
Lawing, of course, has a great many other responsibilities as well, but Alston said that, when it comes down to it, Lawing is the county manager – so it’s only right that the job of getting the shelter on track be directly in his hands.
Alston also pointed out that this arrangement shouldn’t be in effect very long since the county is on the verge of hiring a new Animal Services director.
When asked if this move came from the county manager or from the Board of Commissioners, Alston said it was “a little of both.”
Commissioner Justin Conrad, who is the Board of Commissioners liaison to the Guilford County Animal Services Advisory Committee, said this should help the situation.
“It’s a good move,” Conrad said.
He said Grier has been running the shelter for three-and-a-half months and that’s a lot to ask of anyone with a lot of other duties.
“It’s an overwhelming job,” Conrad said of looking after the 500 or so animals that are usually found at the shelter.
This isn’t the first time Lawing has been named as the head of a county department. In fact, Lawing is already the head of the county’s largest department due to a vacancy – the roughly 900-employee Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). After former DHHS Director Joe Raymond resigned in July 2015 – after only one year at the job – the Guilford County Board of Commissioners decided to leave that position unfilled and Lawing assumed those responsibilities, which were piled onto his others.
Grier has his supporters among animal welfare advocates and those serving on the Animal Services Advisory Board, but there is also some very bad blood between Grier and some of those who work closely with the shelter. There is hope that removing Grier might help bring down that level of discontent.
Brinkley, who often came across as “robotic” also was not a favorite shelter director for many animal lovers in Guilford County.
“He never petted the animals,” one volunteer said.
The move to make Lawing interim shelter head comes after a barrage of new complaints to the Rhino Times about shelter practices, a failure to answer phones, and what some claimed to be questionable euthanizations – given that the county states it doesn’t euthanize over space considerations. Also, many animal lovers were aghast when, in September, the shelter turned down a truckload of donations from High Point First Baptist Church because shelter employees mistakenly believed a former volunteer, now banned from the shelter, was involved with the donation.
Commissioner Alan Branson said that the county’s animal lovers are very emotional about what goes on at the shelter and he said that, while there are certainly concerns, much of the rancor comes from misinformation spread about the shelter. He added that there are personality conflicts at play as well.
“Folks are disgruntled,” Branson said. “Every time the wind blows, they call Raleigh.”
He said there are so many views on how things should be done at the shelter that it’s going to be virtually impossible for a new director to please all the animal lovers.
“They’re not going to like anybody,” Branson said.
Several county officials said that the county had been under very close scrutiny from the state in the wake of the 2015 scandal.
Commissioner Hank Henning said that, close scrutiny or not, the Guilford County Animal Shelter should be able to pass a state inspection like almost every other county shelter does.
“It’s disgraceful we fail inspections,” Henning said.
He said the lack of a full time director at the shelter has been the cause of a lot of the problems.
“We haven’t had the right leadership for the shelter on a daily basis, and it rolls down,” Henning said. “There is a disconnect between our expectations and staff’s. I don’t think staff has operated with a sense of urgency.”
Like other commissioners, Henning said Grier isn’t the problem.
“The shelter can be a challenging environment,” Henning said.