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Animal Shelter Guild files lawsuit against King County, County Exec Constantine

The King County Animal Control Officer's Guild filed a lawsuit Friday against King County and County Executive Dow Constantine to seek release of e-mails from a citizens' advisory committee that in 2007 issued a report that called conditions at the Kent animal shelter “deplorable.”

Sgt. John Diel, president of the Animal Control Officers Guild that represents 28 county officers, said the union filed the lawsuit in an effort to show certain members of the committee will benefit from the county getting out of the sheltering business.

"There have been a lot of things said about the officers and conditions of the shelter that are not true," Diel said in a phone interview Friday. "The main goal is to get our side of the story out."

The union believes certain members of the committee expected to gain financially from the outsourcing of animal care may have worked improperly with Constantine and his staff, according to a media release from union attorney Michael Brannan. He asserted that that such connections could be exposed in e-mails outlined in the public records request.

"E-mails were sent among some of the citizens advisory committee members during a time when the current shelter was being deliberately disparaged in the press by some County Council and advisory committee members," Brannan said in the media release. "We want to clarify relationships they had and have with County Council members, specifically Constantine and his staff. The e-mails demanded are relevant to the advisory committee’s business.”

The advisory committee included Brenda Barnette, who heads the Belleuve-based Seattle Humane Society, one of the regional groups expected to help take over animal sheltering and contract with local cities to provide the service.

Brannan said the lawsuit resulted because five members of the committee refused under a public disclosure request by the union to release e-mails sent from their home computers.

Frank Abe, spokesman for Constantine, denied any improper relationships between Constantine, a former county councilman, and the citizens' advisory committee.

"It's not true," Abe stated in a phone interview Friday.

He added that no deal had been struck yet between the county and the Seattle Humane Society or anyone else to take over animal care and control from the county.

King County plans to close animal shelters in Kent and Bellevue by Jan. 31 and let the cities, along with regional, nonprofit animal-care groups, take over the sheltering business.

The County Council in November voted to direct the county executive to end the county's sheltering services. The Council also wants the cities to take over animal-control field services by June 30 unless new agreements allow the county to recover the full cost of field services to the cities.

County officials say revenues from pet licenses and other fees have fallen about $2 million short per year of the cost of providing animal care and control services. With a projected budget shortfall of $56 million next year, the county wants out of the animal-care and control business to focus on other services and programs.

Kent and 31 other cities in the county have agreements to allow the county to collect pet license fees in order to provide animal-control officers and shelters in Kent and Bellevue. But the pet license fees do not cover all of the costs.

Abe said the county executive continues to try to find an answer for the future of animal care and control in the county.

"We are working with the cities to develop a new model for animal care and control to protect the welfare of the animals and make for a smooth transition," Abe said. "We hope to share information in the coming days and weeks that is being worked on now. Any agreements would be reached through the public process with various city councils."

Abe said Constantine plans to work with the County Council on extending the Jan. 31 deadline so an orderly transition can be accomplished to protect the welfare of the animals and allow the cities to have a new model in place.

The city of Seattle has its own animal-control officers and operates an animal shelter. Renton has its own officers and takes animals to the Seattle Humane Society shelter in Bellevue.

King County still plans to provide animal care and control services to unincorporated areas.

Diel said he expects the cost to taxpayers to go up if private shelters take over sheltering because the private agencies would ask taxpayers to fund new facilities and additional staff.

“Animals housed in the shelter require food, medical attention and adequate care," Diel said. "We have managed to do that in a fiscally responsible – and humane – manner."

But he added that politics have dealt his staff an unfair blow.

“Our reputations have been smeared, jobs have been lost, and in my opinion, this happened as a result of political favor. Taxpayers will likely field the bill for a sweetheart deal worked out between King County and the Seattle Humane society.”

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