A Three-Hour Council Meeting On BARC Achieves...About What You'd Expect, Unfortunately

The biggest surprise during yesterday's City Council Committee on Human Services and Technology meeting on BARC was not that it was three hours of meaningless bureaucratic babble -- Hair Balls had $50 on that -- but that the ghost of Dante Alighieri showed up. "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here!" he shouted over and over, before being escorted from chambers by security on grounds of possessing too much common sense.

The meeting -- which was also attended by most of the full council -- ended on an even more bizarre note: Committee Chairman Jarvis Johnson announced that, when it comes to doing the right things for BARC, "Change is here....We are moving in the right direction." We're not sure by which benchmark Johnson was measuring this watershed moment, as there were remarkably few specifics addressed over the course of the meeting, including what it is exactly "change agent" Gerry Fusco plans to do to turn things around. But more on that in a bit.

Weirdly, the meeting kicked off on a note of sheer terror, with Health and Human Services Director Stephen Williams delivering a vague presentation on "key findings" and how BARC plans to "move forward" -- a mantra that was repeated throughout the meeting.   

When one of a city department's "key findings" is that it needs to "hire supervisors that possess leadership and management skills to create high performing teams and hold staff accountable for performance," you know you're in trouble. We're not exactly sure how many man-hours were spent batting around logistics in the think tank, but Hair Balls was under the impression that, whether it's the public or private sector, it's pretty much a given that you should shoot for leaders who know their ass from a hole in the ground.

Another mind-melting key finding was "the need to hire staff that have the skills, attitude, aptitude, compassion and caring to provide high quality, humane care to animals." We're not sure why this is a concept that would not be extraordinarily obvious to even a single-cell organism -- yet it was a shocker to Health and Human Services when a kennel attendant who spent most of the last 13 years in prison for two separate incidents of aggravated assault exhibited lackluster occupational discretion by punching a puppy repeatedly in the head.

But the man of the hour was Gerry Fusco, the so-called "change agent" who is being considered for a six-month, $208,000 contract to exorcise BARC's demons of cruelty and ignorance. Fusco was paid $49,000 -- an amount that did not have to be approved by City Council -- to start immediately, but the full contract still needs approval.

When Hair Balls first contacted Fusco several weeks ago -- after he was already tapped to be the change agent -- he denied knowing anything about it and subsequently hung up, bitch-slapping the hobgoblin of civic transparency. Then, after Health and Human Services Spokeswoman Kathy Barton confirmed that Fusco was indeed the change agent, Hair Balls e-mailed him to ask if he'd care to talk about what he was going to be doing for the $208,000 that the citizens of Houston were shoveling his way. We're still waiting for his response. (In the meantime, we're considering buying a Miya Shay costume so that maybe, God willing, he'll deign to look our way).

Before Fusco addressed the committee, another change agent (who is already on the payroll) explained what it is a change agent does, and why BARC could benefit from such a person.

With a straight face, Alfred Moran told committee members that a change agent dons "a totally logical pair of glasses" when assessing an organization. He also raised the radical notion that there might be something to "glean" from successful animal shelters, which segued into another duty of the change agent: Seek advice from others.

This apparently means that part of Fusco's $208,000 would go toward him talking to veterinarians and shelter directors in other cities (i.e., people with actual animal health and welfare backgrounds) to get some good suggestions. Moran concluded his speech by saying that Dwight Eisenhower displayed the hallmark of a true change agent by green-lighting the invasion of Normandy, even though the weather looked bad that morning. (We're guessing that Moran laughed his ass off on the way home yesterday, thinking to himself, I can't believe I get paid for this!).

When it was finally Fusco's turn to speak, he assured the committee that he only took the job because he was convinced that Williams wanted a positive change. He also told them he would achieve "high-velocity results" by examining BARC's processes and procedures, culture, volunteer program, and veterinary care. In other words, he would be doing what Mayor Bill White's and City Controller Annise Parker's 2005 reports did -- only he'd be wearing a totally logical pair of glasses while doing so.

Fusco also said that, during his week on the job, he hasn't found a single employee who doesn't care about animals, although he hasn't met everyone yet. We're guessing he hasn't spoken with that kennel attendant who hit the puppy, although we can't blame him, really, because we probably wouldn't want to be in the same room with that dude either. 

"I know how to effect change, and I know how to do it quickly," Fusco said, saying that within the next 30 days he will be able to identify which employees need to stay, which need to be reassigned, and which need to be shown the door. He assured the committee that every organization's he's ever change-agentized is now much better off. Amazingly, not one person asked him to name any of these organizations. 

However, a few council members voiced skepticism. Here, now, is the council members' report card:

Jarvis Johnson -- D. Right after saying that "we are moving in the right direction" on BARC, Johnson said the proof for that statement was that city officials are talking about the problems more than they have before -- a sentence that is exponentially more ludicrous than the one before it. Hair Balls was disappointed that Johnson ended there, because we were curious about what the next words out of his mouth would be. But it's good to know that talk = action.

Anne Clutterbuck -- F. Acting more like a BARC apologist than an elected official, Clutterbuck offered a general proviso to public speakers that they eschew emotional pleas and stick to the facts. She also expanded this concept to the media, imploring them -- uh, us -- to include positive things in BARC stories. Then, like a doe-eyed JV cheerleader shaking pom-poms of ignorance in the eye of a shitstorm, Clutterbuck announced that BARC has made great strides by vaccinating 95 percent of animals upon intake, a myth concocted by BARC's PR machine. (Apparently, this is one of the positive "facts" that the media is supposed to applaud). Clutterbuck also wished that BARC employee Rishay Jones would be the next bureau chief, saying that anyone who has attended monthly "stakeholder" meetings knows how wonderful she is. Note to Clutterbuck: you could be absolutely right, but, unfortunately, these meetings -- which exclude 99.9 percent of the city's population -- are held in the dark, like Skull & Bones, so we don't know what y'all are doing. And if the public doesn't know what's going on at these meetings, and Fusco won't answer any tough questions, and BARC routinely blocks public information requests, how the hell are we supposed to know who Rishay Jones is? Just something to keep in mind.

Jolanda Jones -- A. When one volunteer expressed her concern -- one shared by many other volunteers -- over a BARC employee who was a convicted child rapist allegedly smashing a dog's head in a gate, among other acts of torture, Jones asked for the man's name. Fearing to tread into the murky world of specifics, the rest of the committee let that one go. Throughout the meeting, Jones tried in vain to get Fusco and Williams to say specifically what the city would be getting for its $208,000. She also expressed frustration over the fact that Fusco was brought on board even before being vetted by City Council. In short, Jones displayed critical thinking skills, something that was in painfully short supply during the meeting.

Melissa Noriega -- A. Like Jones, Noriega seemed a bit fed up with the vagueness of Fusco's mandate. In response to Williams's statement that a deep understanding of BARC's problems and possible solutions is necessary, Noriega pointed to a stack of complaints and said "I got your deep understanding right here." She implored Williams to come out and make a specific request about how much money is needed to turn things around, and to give a specific plan. "I want some meat on the bones," she said. Boo-yah!

Pam Holm -- B. Holm asked Williams why, if the situation was so dire at BARC, why wasn't Fusco's contract presented to the council right away. She also asked Moran why he can't be the change agent, since he's already on the city payroll. Moran said he had other obligations, and besides, Williams didn't ask him. We'd like to give Holm an A, but she was pretty much silent for the remainder of the meeting.

Peter Brown -- Incomplete. Brown was not present; he sent a member of his staff who spent the bulk of the time talking to an unknown dude to his left, and then looking down at either his crotch or a PDA.

Sue Lovell -- Incomplete. Lovell wasn't there either, but the staffer she sent in her place appeared to be completely attentive and did not once gaze at his crotch/PDA.

Ed Gonzalez -- A. Gonzalez didn't say much, but when he did, it was worthwhile. To wit, he asked the question that has been on a lot of critics' minds lately: "Can we remove BARC [from Health and Human Services] and replace it as its own entity?" To which Williams said that he would like BARC to remain under HHS. Which Hair Balls can't understand. Whenever we step in dogshit, we want to scrape it off right away.

Wanda Adams -- C-. "Changes do not occur overnight," Adams said. But apparently they don't occur over five years, either. Platitudes are fine when talking about red-light cameras, but not when animals are needlessly dying.

Toni Lawrence -- Incomplete. We knew yesterday that Lawrence was physically present, but when looking through our notes later, we couldn't find any mention of her. We had to call her office this morning to confirm that we had not been hallucinating. We apologize: Lawrence may have said some wonderful, insightful things, but in three hours' worth of notes, we got nothin'.

The public speakers almost unanimously called for "no-kill" advocate Nathan Winograd to be BARC's change agent. Winograd is, in addition to Fusco and a group called MCV, yet another consultant being paid to assess BARC -- he's supposed to arrive next week.

Williams said he's looking forward to seeing what Winograd has to say, and Councilwoman Jones expressed her confidence in him, tempting us to knock down her grade. We wonder if Winograd is one of the "experts" Fusco will seek advice from. We're not sure that would be a good idea: Winograd, who, contrary to what his supporters belive, has scant experience running an animal shelter, pushes a philosophy built on the premise that animal overpopulation is a myth.

Hair Balls hates to say it, but it looks like Dante was right: abandon all hope.

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