TAMPA — Ian Hallett, whose career as director of Hillsborough County’s Animal Services began with much promise, was removed Monday after months of withering criticism from the animal welfare community.
County Administrator Mike Merrill shifted Hallett to the county Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department, where he will serve as manager of parks services. Code Enforcement Director Dexter Barge will take the helm at Animal Services on interim basis, Merrill said.
Merrill had continued to support Hallett in recent months despite a string of problems at the animal shelter. These included two disease outbreaks, animals killed that shouldn’t have been, and scathing audits by outside experts.
The county administrator hired former Temple Terrace City Manager Kim Leinbach to assess problems at the shelter and got a report back last week about how the department was performing under Hallett.
“Based on what I heard, I decided it was time for a change of leadership,” Merrill said. “He is a good manager and has had a lot of good success, but he’s also had some setbacks and a difficult time.
“The bottom line was his leadership style was not going to be right to move us forward.”
Hallett did not respond to a request for comment.
Some members of the local animal welfare community welcomed Hallett’s departure, saying it would improve conditions in the shelter and allow the county to move forward with initiatives to reduce euthanasia.
“It’s a very good thing,” said Spencer Bard, head of the Guardian Angel Dog Rescue. “There was so much suffering of the animals. And the employees, I would say, were suffering. He was way over his head in a big municipal shelter like Hillsborough’s.”
Trisha Kirby, who regularly fosters animals from the shelter and finds them permanent homes, said she was “overjoyed,” Hallett was out.
“I just saw so many sick animals, and he wasn’t willing to work with people,” Kirby said. “There was almost zero collaboration, and people were offering to help.”
Repairing relations with the animal rescue groups and volunteers at the shelter will be a top priority, Merrill said. County Commissioner Ken Hagan said he agreed with that goal.
“What’s critically important at this point is to rebuild the relationships and trust with rescues and the volunteers,” Hagan said. “In order to do that, I believe this was a necessary step.”
Hallett, who hails from Riverview, was hired in May 2012 from his job as deputy director of the Austin Animal Center in Texas, a so-called “no kill” shelter because 90 percent of the animals admitted there leave alive. Animal advocates hoped Hallett could reproduce Austin’s live outcome rate at the Hillsborough shelter, where euthanasia rates had remained stubbornly high.
In May, 50 or so cat lovers wore green T-shirts and packed the county commission chambers to support Hallett’s “Be the Way Home” plan to reform Animal Services and reduce euthanasia rates.
But supporters soon became detractors as Hallett’s plan bogged down and conditions worsened at the shelter. In July, 18 dogs came down with the deadly parvovirus, forcing Merrill to call a press conference to assure the community that the disease was under control.
Months later, several dogs at the shelter came down with a respiratory disease and Hallett instituted a quarantine.
Animal advocates were especially disappointed in Hallett’s inability to implement a “community cats” program, in which feral cats are trapped, neutered, vaccinated and released into their former neighborhoods. The program, known as TNR, is used in communities across the country to reduce euthanasia rates.
Six months after commissioners initially approved the plan, they are just getting around to setting a Dec. 18 public hearing on making needed amendments to the county’s animal ordinance so neuter and release can go forward.
Frank Hamilton, president of the Animal Coalition of Tampa, said he’s worried the project will be delayed further while the county seeks a new, permanent director of Animal Services.
“I’m kind of concerned that we’re going to lose steam a little bit,” Hamilton said. “I hope we don’t slip, but I think we will.”
But Merrill said the county will continue to push forward with Be the Way Home plan, including trap, neuter and release.
“We’re going to keep pushing initiatives to adopt more animals,” Merrill said. “We just have to make sure it’s sustainable and we have the right resources.”
Hallett will continue to make his current salary of $104,000 in his job at the parks department, where he will work on agreements with vendors and sports teams, Merrill said.
Barge will wear two hats, continuing to lead Code Enforcement, which includes animal control and cruelty investigations.
Barge is known in county circles as a “Mr. Fix It,” who can parachute into a troubled agency and stabilize it until new, permanent leadership is hired.