By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
EXETER – The firestorm of controversy that engulfed the Exeter Animal Shelter in late April – and seemed doused by May 24 when an ordinance was adopted placing the facility under the director of public works – has been smoldering all along.
In a remarkable turn of events, the council held a special meeting last Wednesday in the library of the Exeter-West Greenwich Junior-Senior High School to hear complaints from Jutta Lucas, the animal control officer at the center of last spring’s brouhaha.
During the summer she aired her views on a TV news broadcast before rising at the Sept. 4 council meeting to renew claims of shelter mismanagement.
“This meeting,” said council president Arlene Hicks last week “is the result of remarks at the Sept. 4 meeting. We had no [advance] knowledge; those issues weren’t on the agenda.”
She noted that the protocol for dealing with such matters is for an employee to first approach his or her supervisor and then the town manager – which Exeter doesn’t have. “It is unusual to hold this type of special meeting.”
A union official sat behind her as Lucas shared a front table with her boyfriend Richard M. Seymour, a local waste hauler. She consulted a laptop computer to make assertions such as:
n The shelter is not running according to policy and procedures
n Adoption fees are outdated and the shelter’s hours of
operation benefit personnel rather than the public
n Dogs are “at risk,” need better outdoor runs and despite her requests that trainers be brought in to socialize dogs that tend to be aggressive, “nothing has been done.”
n Adoption decisions are biased, “underhand activities” are occurring and the director issued a letter declaring his ability to have final say on adoptions. (Although Hicks admonished speakers not to name anyone, it was clear Lucas meant Steve Mattscheck, with whom she has an acrimonious relationship.)
n The number of cats at the shelter must be reduced to 15 or the rest will be euthanized; dogs dropped on the doorstep are under similar threat.
n She has been reprimanded and told to keep her opinions to herself despite her great knowledge.
n Shelter management has told staff , “We don’t care about animals once they leave” leading to sick animals being adopted out.
His voice raised, council vice president Bill Monahan asked, “How many cats have been euthanized?”
“None,” replied Lucas.
“How many dogs and cats have been euthanized after being dropped at the door?” Monahan continued.
“Nobody’s dropping them,” Lucas said.
“Why are you accusing us?” demanded Monahan.
Lucas then began shouting at the council – which had steadfastly defended her against angry crowds last spring – charging, “You hung me out to dry. You stabbed me in the back. I give more than 100 percent every day.”
A clearly-affronted Hicks, who earlier went on record as Lucas’ staunchest supporter, asked, “How did this council stab you in the back?”
Lucas reminded the council that she’d “come in and cleaned up your mess” at the shelter and had been betrayed.
Ray Morrissey, council liaison to the shelter, offered an emotional apology to Lucas during which he seemed near tears.
“Miss Lucas did a wonderful job [as ACO in charge.] I went on vacation” and a director was voted in. “I feel that people are trying to get rid of you, throw you under the bus. I want to apologize to you. Things are reverting back [to previous shelter conditions] and I don’t like it. This style of management isn’t working.”
Councilman Calvin Ellis found the adoption fee schedule information confusing. “I feel the picture is distorted. Is there a fee schedule? No fee schedule?”
Despite her suggestions about increasing fees, Lucas said nothing had been done.
When her testimony ended, the public was dismissed so the council could go into executive session and hear Mattscheck’s position. Although participants are not allowed to discuss what goes on in these sessions, the director said later it was a matter of one person’s biased viewpoint versus another person’s biased viewpoint.
Ultimately, he added, “Nothing happened.”
In an interview later, Ellis said of the continued shelter problems that he’s “pretty disappointed. It’s discouraging. Arlene has spent so much time since all of this surfaced at the shelter, trying to wok out quirks and personality clashes. We have to address” the issue.
He said an e-mail circulated by Seymour in which he once again levels charges of fraud and theft at the shelter, mocks the council’s behavior at the special meeting and refers to them with an obscene word is “not a good thing. Hostile e-mails aren’t credible and I take them with a grain of salt.”
Morrissey’s comments and those of Dan Patterson – who has clashed with Mattscheck in the past – may have backfired. At least one prominent Republican no longer supports the two and is speaking out about their behavior.
Carla Neubert Benoist, who sits on the planning and library boards and is a member of the GOP town committee, said, “Both of these men are simply showing a lack of intelligence, judgment and character.”
Noting that she “doesn’t relish” going against people in her own party, Benoist explained “I believe that holding public office is a sacred trust” and recent actions by the two men show “a huge lack of character. I don’t care what party they say they represent, their first duty is to the people who elected them.”
She’s especially baffled by Morrissey’s criticism of the shelter’s management since she recalled a conversation in which he contended that appointing Mattscheck “had been his idea. At the time, I questioned the strategy but over the following weeks and months I could see that it was working” and Mattscheck was bringing professionalism and compassion to the job.
“I can only conclude that Ray was grandstanding to get votes,” she said of Morrissey, who runs as an Independent but attends GOP events and aligns himself with Patterson in council matters. “After bragging about the idea of putting Steven in charge, why would he turn around and grovel and think he was impressing voters in a way that would make them want to vote for him?”
Benoist said she expects “at the least” to be asked to leave the town committee, adding that she’s so offended by what’s going on she doesn’t really care.
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is a freelance writer for SRIN.