TAMPA — Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill said Wednesday he needed an “independent set of eyes” to sort out problems at the increasingly beleaguered Animals Services department.
Six of the seven county commissioners agreed to give Merrill what he wanted by hiring former Temple Terrace City Manager Kim Leinbach as a senior manager at the animal shelter. Leinbach will report directly to Merrill, bypassing the department’s director, Ian Hallett.
“The reason for bringing in Kim Leinbach is that he’s an experienced city manager,” Merrill said. “He has dealt with issues that are contentious.”
Hallett has been the target of criticism from animal rights groups over continuing problems at the animal shelter, including the unnecessary killing of four dogs since last November and disease outbreaks that critics say were caused by unsanitary conditions.
Merrill met with several of the animal welfare groups Tuesday, which pressed for Hallett and his deputy, David Morton, to be fired. At the same time, the groups have been critical of Merrill’s desire to hire Leinbach, saying what the shelter needs is more trained workers to care for the animals.
Merrill told commissioners that steps are being taken to improve hygiene at the shelter. He said the county is adding nine, non-management employees at the shelter: four customer service representatives, three veterinary technicians and two animal care assistants.
For the time being, Hallett’s job is secure. Merrill said he doesn’t have anybody else on his staff with experience as an animal shelter operator, and he doesn’t know anybody in the community with the experience for the job.
“The community may disagree over the management capabilities of Ian Hallett,” Merrill said, “but he is an experienced shelter operator. He has demonstrated that in one of the best cities in the country, Austin, Texas. That’s why we hired him.”
Merrill said that though some animal rights activists want Hallett fired, others say he’s doing a good job.
“Do I think it’s all Ian’s fault? No,” Merrill said after the meeting. “I think the truth is somewhere in the middle.”
Commissioner Mark Sharpe, a Navy veteran, disagreed, comparing Animal Services under Hallett’s management as a ship “bobbing about” and “going in the wrong direction.”
“We need someone who knows what they’re doing, who can step in immediately, bring calm to the situation and structure,” Sharpe said. “They’re not going to be loved by everyone, but they’re going to get the job done. I don’t believe the current leadership can do it.”
Other commissioners, however, were willing to let Merrill handle the situation his way.
Merrill said Hallett wasn’t to blame for the highly publicized death of JoJo, a German shepherd that was euthanized even though the do was slated for adoption. Three shelter employees have been suspended without pay because of JoJo’s death and face a pre-disciplinary hearing this week. Merrill said an investigation showed the employees had access to records showing JoJo was to be adopted. They killed the dog inadvertently, they said, because they were “distracted.”