Westminster Could Change Who Shelters City’s Stray and Rescued Animals

BRANDON PHO, Voice of OC

Westminster Adoption Group and Services (WAGS) CEO Michelle Russillo shows a photo of her dog, RiRi, who she says was the inspiration for the shelter, which has been a longtime contractor with the city for animal control services.

Westminster officials could soon end their relationship with a local shelter for animal control services, possibly affecting thousands of shelter animals and strays in the city over the next couple of years.

But some residents question whether council members, grappling with key crises like their own recall elections and a leadership vacuum at City Hall, will be distracted and unable to make effective decisions on issues like the city’s animal control contract.

City staff say they could end their years-long contract with Westminster Adoption Group and Services (WAGS), an animal rescue shelter currently providing animal control services for Westminster and Stanton, according to a Jan. 27 post on the Westminster Police Department’s official Facebook page.

After initiating a $320,000 deal with WAGS back in 2016, officials this year will send the contract back out to bid, giving other animal control groups a chance to vie for the contract, and council members will review the different proposals on March 11, according to the Facebook post.

Since the deadline for proposals passed on Feb. 4, Westminster Police Cmdr. Alan Iwashita said the city’s received two proposals: one from WAGS hoping to new its contract and another from the Orange County Humane Society in Huntington Beach.

The WAGS shelter processed around around 2,300 animals between Westminster and Stanton last year, Iwashita said.

He added that the police department’s animal control unit – which issued the request for new bids for the contract on Jan. 16 — will review all the proposals they’ve received and that he doesn’t see “any foreseeable issues” with his staff’s ability to study them.

Still, the police department’s initial Facebook post garnered large interest and pushback by local residents and activists, who then turned out to the City Council’s Jan. 29 meeting arguing City Hall is currently in no shape to decide on possibly going with a new shelter group.

Around 15 people spoke, most of them supporting WAGS.

Resident Jessica Losteneau questioned whether city officials — facing a leadership vacuum and the possible recall of three sitting council members — had the proper resources to study the issue and make a decision on the city’s shelter animals, if taken out of WAGS’ care and put in the hands of another group.

“If you rush through this (bidding process) without proper research due to a power vacuum, mistakes can be made — and this issue is just too important for residents for mistakes to be made,” said resident Jessica Losteneau in public comment at Westminster’s council meeting.

Losteneau pointed to the upcoming departures of the city’s two top executive staffers: City Manager Eddie Manfro and his assistant Chet Simmons.

The City Council last month voted in closed session to appoint the city’s current finance director, Sherry Johnson, as Manfro’s temporary replacement.

Iwashita said “the animal control unit would be one reviewing the proposals” – not staff at the City Manager’s office.

“We conduct an unbiased, due diligence inquiry about whether or not the bidder is capable of meeting the contractual obligations we stipulated,” Iwashita added. “Once we finish the fact-finding, we end up documenting our findings in a staff report that ultimately goes to the city council for review.”

The shelter’s CEO, Huntington Beach resident Michelle Rusillo, joined the chorus of activists asking council members to put a pause on the contract’s bidding process.

“I’m here to ask for one thing: a pause in the (bidding) process,” Rusillo said in public comment. “My reason for wanting to ask this relates to the turnover and turmoil happening right now in the city of Westminster.”

If WAGS’ contract went to another animal group, then around “10-13,000 animals that would go through the system of WAGS (over the next several years), would go through a different system … 10-13,000 animals would be affected by this contract,” Rusillo said.

“The people that sit here today — not all of them will be here in City Council roles, as well as management roles” shortly after they make their decision, Rusillo said, pointing to the upcoming April 7 recall election that could possibly see voters unseat council members Kimberly Ho, Charlie Nguyen and Tri Ta.

“Settle what’s occurring with the city, to move past the turmoil that’s occurring, and the turnover, and get to a stabilized place where good decisions are made for what could be 10-13,000 animals,” Rusillo said.

Westminster resident Claudia Steinmetz called WAGS “more than a shelter.”

“It is a home to our most vulnerable and speechless residents. It is the safe haven to pets who have been lost. It is a place for second and third chances,” she said.

“As long as (WAGS) has been here, they’ve been an asset to this community,” said resident Lisa Phelps. “They don’t only shelter dogs and cats. They shelter tortoises and birds and whatever gets brought to them.”

With all the issues facing City Hall, “this whole situation, contract negotiation, should be shelved until the turmoil in this city is taken care of and then readdressed,” Phelps said.

Despite a large volume of public comments supporting WAGS, the shelter still had its critics Wednesday.

Animal shelter reform activist Sharon Logan pointed out WAGS’ delinquency status as a registered charity with the state Attorney General’s office. She also criticized the shelter for calling itself a “no-kill” shelter in some posts to its website.

The concept of “no-kill” shelters have been a common point of contention across the U.S., criticized for being a misnomer as shelters tend to call themselves “no-kill” when not all of their animals survive to see adoption and while still utilizing euthanasia practices. In other parts of its website, WAGS claims to “work hard to avoid euthanasia …”

“They have not posted any raw data, statistics, or metrics showing how they became ‘no-kill,’” Logan said.

WAGS reported a total revenue – including donations – of more than $841,000 on its most recent IRS financial reports for the 2017 tax year, and spent more than $680,000.

After the Council last year granted another four-year extension to the city’s $320,000 contract with WAGS for animal care services, officials will be required by city law to offer out the contract to bid with other animal care groups under what’s called a request for proposals. The city began its relationship with the group back in 2016.

But it doesn’t mean WAGS can’t win back its contract.

“The Police Department and City have been satisfied with the service provided by WAGS during the past four years,” reads the Westminster Police Department’s Facebook post. “We invite and encourage WAGS to submit a bid, and we thank them for their service to our community.”

After public commenters spoke, the Council proceeded with the night’s city business agenda, which had nothing scheduled for a public discussion of the contract.

Councilman Nguyen after the meeting said he didn’t want to publicly comment on the contract until it comes up for discussion in March.

But he casted doubt after the meeting that the ongoing turmoil at City Hall – which includes the possible recall of himself – would affect their ability to make a sound decision on the animal services contract.

“The recall is an opportunity for people to come out and speak their minds,” Nguyen said, calling the animal services contract “city business” that they’ll “still have to deal with.”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporting fellow. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.