A Q&A With The Man Who Oversees BARC Leaves More Q's Than A's

When it comes to the Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care, Stephen Williams is a man who does not like to dwell on the past. As the director of Houston's Department of Health and Human Services, he said in an interview Monday that while he was aware of years of criticism of BARC, the thing to really focus on are the recent and ongoing improvements. Chief among these is the new policy of vaccinating animals in the field, before they are even brought to the shelter. Williams said this will go a long way to combat the spread of distemper, among other diseases. But the ultimate goal is to increase foster homes.

He also said that select classifications of employees are being asked to reapply for their jobs, and that those job descriptions are being modified to include appropriate "skill-sets." He would not answer questions about whether specific employees were a good fit for BARC, such as Chief Vet Eunice Ohashiegbula-Iwunze.

Instead, Williams stressed that all BARC employees "really need to like animals and value animals." 

Williams also said that BARC's budget increased by 13 percent this year, on top of last year's 13 percent increase -- signs that BARC is committed to quality care.

Throughout the interview, Williams underlined the importance of placing matters of policy and personnel in "context." The strange thing is, we thought we were trying to do just that by asking why these very same problems were the focus of discussions, reviews, and presentations since the beginning of Williams's tenure in 2004.

Williams said such items were either too old to think about, already implemented, or previously dismissed as unnecessary. When asked if he thought it was important for the public to examine his track record in order to evaluate his effectiveness and assign the appropriate amount of confidence to his current claims, Williams said he would hope that the public look at his entire DHHS track record, and not just BARC.

Which begged the question: if one area is perfect and the other is not so much, would it be in everyone's (and every animal's) best interest to remove BARC from DHHS control?

"I think that's the Mayor's decision," Williams said. In fact, when we informed him that that was actually not an answer, he gave the same non-answer a few more times. Finally, he said that if the question is, does he value BARC, then the answer would be yes.

The bottom line, he said, is that improvements are being made, and the public needs to focus on moving forward, and how we can best help the animals today.

However, we don't entirely agree. There needs to be another line -- whether or not it's the bottom -- about why problems brought to BARC's attention years ago are only (allegedly) being addressed today. Because it appears that BARC management isn't doomed to repeat history because they don't know it -- they've been repeating it in spite of the fact that they know it.

Here are just a few historical items that Williams did not want to discuss, or, in some cases, gave what we thought were less than insightful explanations:

-- In February 2006, the group Saving Animals Across Borders (now defunct) issued a document titled "Critical Situation at BARC," which smacks of deja-vu. Among its findings were:

1.) "Inability to implement animal handling, sanitation and infection control policies developed and agreed to by DHHS administration one year ago." (emphasis added)

2.) "Inability to implement animal emergency services agreement developed and agreed to by DHHS administration one year ago."

3.) "Disease outbreak has reached crisis proportions and jeopardizes the health and well-being of animals at BARC."

4.) "Eight dogs adopted into new homes have died of distemper in the last week alone, fostering continued negativity about -- and mistrust of -- BARC in the community."

5.) "Failure to implement consistent advice of consulting veterinarians, BARC's veterinary surgical team, and directors of other animal shelters in Houston and Austin (protocol developed one year ago)" which contributed to #3.

6.) "Staff morale at all-time lows."
-- In 2005, before the Mayor's Task Force on BARC report was released, the BARC Evaluation Committee held a series of weekly meetings addressing problems and seeking solutions. Williams told us he wasn't present for these meetings and would have depended on BARC staff to inform him if any of these issues had presented significant problems. (DHHS Assistant Director Michael Terasso, who was also present at the interview, said that, because these meetings were held prior to his employment, he was not aware of them).

Here are some highlights from the committee's January 19, 2005 agenda:

1.) "Volunteer program set-up."

2.) "Distemper outbreak."

3.) "Status of [request for proposal] for after-hours/emergency vet care." (Williams told us this was no longer necessary, as BARC always has one veterinarian on call).

4.) "Customer service procedures at BARC (role of each employee in assisting public with adoptions)."

5.) "Incentives for employees."

--In August 2006, then-Bureau Director Kent Robertson gave a presentation at which Williams was present. Here are some highlights of the policies he said were implemented, and of the policies that would be implemented in the future:

1.) "Upon entry, all animals are evaluated by vet staff and, if held, are vaccinated for common diseases." (Williams told us that, as far as he knew, this policy has been in place since 2006. However, a draft memo we wrote about earlier stated that only eight percent of animals were vaccinated upon entry. DHHS Spokeswoman Kathy Barton later said the figure only reflected "immunization before intake" -- immunizations done in the field. This is in keeping with the extremely confusing, oft-contradictory information that leaks out of BARC. We can't help but find it strange that the DHHS administration seemed to ignore every other issue the BARC Evaluation Committee and Saving Animals Across Borders screamed about, but this one policy -- vaccination upon intake -- was strictly adhered to. Yet even though it was followed since 2006, dogs continue to be adopted out half-dead with distemper. Strange).

2.) In the area of "Community Relations/Media," Robertson called for "monthly press releases." It would be nice if this policy would have been followed, because local media might know when DHHS does stuff like, say, hire a new BARC director, or fire a vet who has been illegally administering controlled substances to animals for nearly a decade. You know, little stuff like that.

3.) "Working with Building Services to determine cost, etc., to remodel kennels and cat areas." (We visited BARC over the weekend, only to find a loading area had been converted into a holding area for kittens. While there were several large fans, the area has no air-conditioning, and it was pushing 100 degrees Sunday).

That's just some of the "context" we wish Williams would consider. Oh, and before we go, here is one last important item: Williams said that volunteers or employees should not be afraid to be fired or have their privileges revoked for speaking out about misconduct. If people are too afraid to tell their immediate supervisor, he said, they should inform him directly.

"I can promise that...they will not be blacklisted for speaking up," he said.

We're going to keep a real close eye on that one.  


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Contributor Craig Malisow covers crooks, quacks, animal abusers, elected officials, and other assorted people for the Houston Press.
Contact: Craig Malisow