An Interview With BARC's Change Agent

BARC could install a 3,000-square-foot building to house cats within a month, interim chief Gerry Fusco and Health and Human Services Spokeswoman Kathy Barton told Hair Balls Wednesday.

It was a bit of welcome concrete information, something that's been scarce since Fusco was brought on board two weeks ago. During that time, Fusco said, he's been helping in the search for a bureau chief and chief veterinarian, slots he hopes will be filled within the next three months. (He said a part-time vet, Virginia Groemminger, is the interim chief vet; Groemminger had a brief stint at BARC earlier this year, but left for reasons that still aren't clear).

Fusco said he's also been scouting locations for an offsite adoption center and has already overseen a new euthanasia policy wherein the chief vet needs to sign off on every animal before it's put down. (It's a nifty idea, and is certainly a policy that could've been used earlier this month, when two dogs were mistakenly euthanized in the same week. Oops.) And along those lines, Fusco said, they're also working up a clear definition of "adoptable" in a bid to lower the euthanization rate.

This stuff, along with the good news that air-conditioning was finally installed in the cat housing area, is promising. But Hair Balls can't shake the suspicion that once Mayor Bill White decided BARC needed a "change agent," there was an implicit (or explicit) understanding that this person would not be allowed to point a finger at HHS Director Stephen Williams. (In a clumsy analogy, White told a KUHF reporter yesterday that problems in public schools could not, and should not, be solved by firing everyone and starting from scratch. Um, Wouldn't a more accurate analogy be if there was one school where teachers slapped kids around, didn't teach them jack shit, didn't allow them to eat lunch, and and the principal just  ignored complaints from parents and the few teacher who did care? Would you fire that dude? But we digress.)

"I think Stephen and [health policy director] Elena Marks, and others I've met, were very passionate about getting it right, and saying that there have been a history of failures," Fusco said. "I don't know whose failures, [or] on whose part the failures were."

See, Hair Balls thought that finding out who made these mistakes would have been a good starting place. But we don't have the "Six Sigma" training Fusco has. All we have is the feeling that, in a failing organization, you start with the person in charge and find out what they have or haven't been doing. But Fusco was reluctant to talk about the past, saying he can only deal with the present and future. While we agreed that it was nice that the cats finally had a/c, we wondered why they went so long without it in the first place.

Barton pointed out that, because there was limited kennel space, the cats have been kept in a loading dock that was not meant to be equipped with a/c, and that this improvised space showed that BARC was actually doing everything it could to save animals. (We find it interesting, though, that it took months to give these cats something as basic as a/c, but BARC shelled out close to $50,000 for Fusco at the speed of light, and wants to throw another $158,000 his way. Sort of shows Williams's priorities).

Okay, but why was there no space to begin with? How long has overcrowding been an issue? And how long is it acceptable for animals to be kept without a/c in Houston, in the summer? At what point are the cats better off fending for themselves on the outside?

"I'm not going down that path," Fusco said. He said he had no idea how long the cats had been without a/c, and that because the problem has been fixed, it's no longer a relevant issue.

"I'd say it's relevant if I was facing that myself," he said. "...So I don't know what happened in the past. I ask for things, they're being acted upon, they're being reacted to. I have a whole organization from Stephen down...that [is] being supportive." He also added, "I understand your logic -- you can't produce a better future until you learn the past. I absolutely agree. However, the support is there now."

But is it? And why now, all of a sudden? In 2005, White shrugged off his task force's own report on BARC, essentially blaming BARC's incompetence and the suffering of its animals on a public unwilling to spay/neuter its pets. But suddenly, about six months before he leaves office, he calls for a six-month contract for a "change agent"?

But Fusco assured us that White, Williams, and others really want long-lasting change -- which is why they picked him in the first place. 

"What landed me this position, I believe, is that I differentiated from other candidates by saying I will deliver sustainable improvements, and that's what they wanted," Fusco said. "They didn't want window dressing."

But to Hair Balls, there are too many loose ends. For example, when a volunteer accused kennel attendant Murray Bailey of hitting a dog in June -- something a lay-person might call "animal cruelty" -- BARC seems to not have investigated the matter, opting to give Bailey, an ex-con with a history of violent crimes, "counseling." But a month after the volunteer raised her concerns again, Bailey was suddenly transferred to another job where he wouldn't have contact with animals. Fusco said it was Williams's decision to move Bailey.

OK, but was it also Williams's decision not to do anything about the accusation in the first place?

"I don't know, I wasn't here," Fusco said. Nor did he have any interest in finding out.

"You know, Stephen Williams is only as good as his people are," Fusco said, "...just like any organization. And I believe he believed he hired the right people, and it didn't turn out to be that. And Stephen has been smart enough to make the right decisions and say, 'Look, we need somebody else in here.'"

OK, let's stop time and evaluate that for a moment: Williams allowed the position of chief vet to be filled by a woman who accidentally killed three dogs in her private practice, blaming at least one of the deaths on the fact that she was under the influence of pain-killers. He allowed -- some critics say "encouraged" -- the hiring of violent ex-offenders (including Bailey) to work with animals, when they've already demonstrated that they've assign little value to human life. He approved the hiring of Ray Sim as bureau chief after a seven-month search, and approved his firing after a two-month tenure. He allowed former vet David Rundell to work for years without proper controlled-substances registration, and allowed the chief vet to cover for him.

If Williams believed that these truly were the "right people," doesn't that indicate a nearly pathological lack of judgment? And since Williams will still be there after Fusco has left, how can the public be assured that this astonishing string of failures will not continue?

Fusco isn't worried, though. As far as he's concerned, Williams is passionate about improving things. He told us that in a short while, "You won't recognize the BARC of a year ago."

We hope so. And we hope even more that another "change agent" won't be telling us the exact same thing a year from now.   

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