In the Doghouse

— If animals could talk, they, too, might express opinions about recent changes at the San Diego Humane Society and Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), which investigates complaints of abuse and serves as an adoption agency for pets.

The Humane Society has become a revolving door for people as well as animals, some employees say, since John Merritt became executive director in March 1998. In less than two years, the staff of 63 has lost at least 40 employees to early retirement, forced resignations, misery on the job, and better offers elsewhere. The departures include some replacement workers who have come and gone, with one quitting her first day on the job. One worker who was fired boasted to her colleagues that she had told Merritt, "You're about as useless as tits on a boarhog!"

In August, a majority of nonmanagement employees voted for union representation, not necessarily because they desire more pay but because, they say, they distrust Merritt and seek job protection. However, some management employees describe Merritt as "open" and "accessible." Teamsters Union Local 481 is negotiating a contract, which, so far, tentatively addresses noneconomic issues.

About 20 employees, former employees, and volunteers are publicizing their concerns about Merritt and numerous management decisions. Identifying themselves as "The Committee to Protect the Animals," they have posted a website available via http://www.angelfire.com/ca4/sdspca or http://members.xoom.com/sdspca. Twice they mailed letters alleging mismanagement to Humane Society trustees, other animal-welfare organizations, local government officials, and news media. Internal memorandums of the society, minutes of staff meetings, newsletters, resignation notices, and financial statements accompany the letters, which are dated in October and November.

Merritt, 53, seems unruffled by the outburst of potentially embarrassing information, which includes a religious-discrimination lawsuit filed against him in 1997 by two former employees of the Humane Society of Rochester and Monroe County, New York. He worked there six years as executive director before joining the San Diego Humane Society. The suit, which also identified the Rochester Society as a defendant, was settled out of court last year, according to the plaintiff's lawyer.

The information is false and misleading because it is incomplete, Merritt said. For example, the suit doesn't mention that the two Rochester employees were part of a religious group that harassed other coworkers, he said. In addition, the website and mailings should be discounted, he said, given the source is anonymous. "This is a personal attack on me. These are all John Does. I have no idea whether this is one person or 100 people."

Merritt exudes a bit of Southern gentleman charm as he struggles to empathize with employees who wish to retain anonymity because they fear losing their jobs or former employees who don't want to be labeled as whistleblowers. "If these people would sit down and say they have a problem, I'd be happy to discuss it with them," he said. "We have not terminated employees for disagreeing."

Adept with statistics, the analytical Merritt had different responses to employee turnover. Initially he said people change jobs on average every three years and that an attrition rate of one-third a year is normal, given San Diego's thriving economy and low unemployment. Later he said most of the original staff still works at the Humane Society, noting that among the 40 people who quit are at least a dozen who joined the staff after his arrival. However, Merritt's list of employee departures differs from that of the Committee to Protect the Animals.

Word of workplace turmoil occurs at an awkward time. The San Diego Humane Society plans to raise $10 million to build an animal shelter that would replace its existing facility at 887 Sherman Street in Mission Valley. Scheduled to open in late 2002, the new shelter would be located at 5480 Gaines Street, next to a similar facility to be built by San Diego County's Department of Animal Control. The county currently operates an antiquated shelter at that address on city property, and the society is negotiating with the city to buy a $2 million parcel there.

Placing the nonprofit, charitable Humane Society next to a government agency is part of an ambitious plan to create "no kill" animal shelters in San Diego County within five years. The term "no kill," however, is a misnomer. In reality, government officials aim to reduce euthanasia, which now claims more than 30,000 cats, dogs, rabbits, and other unwanted pets a year in San Diego County. The "no kill" policy would apply to all "adoptable" animals -- loosely defined under state law as puppies and kittens older than eight weeks and animals that are healthy and friendly. Vicious dogs, unsociable cats, terminally ill pets, and newborn litters would continue to be killed unless medical care, training, and nurturing programs were to spare some of those animals.

While the new animal-welfare complex could become a national role model of cooperation between public and private agencies, some people think the Humane Society would lose its identity once it's next to the Department of Animal Control. And that might hamper fundraising. Lines between government (which has a mandate to control rabies, enforce local ordinances, and collect stray animals) and charity (which has long prided itself on "protecting animals from people") are already a bit blurred. McDonald's Corp. heiress Joan Kroc and San Diego Union-Tribune publisher Helen Copley have each pledged $2 million to the county's new shelter -- largely in response to publicity about unsanitary conditions and sick animals at the existing 70-year-old facility. In contrast, the Humane Society, which receives no tax dollars and relies entirely on donations, has not yet garnered such huge gifts for its new building. Kroc happens to be an honorary lifetime member of the society.

Fear of jeopardizing the Humane Society's $10 million capital campaign and its regular donations, which total about $2.7 million a year, has made some employees and volunteers reluctant to discuss workforce discontent.

The Humane Society's board of trustees is cautious in responding, trustee Melvin Segal said, because boards rarely get involved in daily operations or employee-management disputes of any organization, be they business or charity. But "we can't stick our heads in the sand," he said. "There's obviously a communications problem. We're looking into getting a human-resources specialist in there to talk to employees." Merritt probably is getting blamed for board decisions, such as the January 1 closing of the Humane Society's "Large Animal Facility" in Poway, Segal said. Established with donor money in 1989, the facility housed horses, cows, and other livestock, particularly those rescued during fires and floods. Although it is a unique asset and links the society closely to the Animal Rescue Reserve volunteer group, the facility cost more than $100,000 a year to accommodate a relatively small number of animals, which at times had included goats, pigs, and chickens. "It was just bleeding money," Segal said.

Judith Muñoz, president of the Humane Society's board of trustees, said the board gave Merritt free rein to review all operations and make improvements, such as extending office hours to 7:00 p.m. to increase pet adoptions. "I went through the documents line by line," she said, referring to the thick packets sent by the Committee to Protect the Animals. "Most of the information isn't accurate. It's nonsense," she concluded, predicting that allegations of mismanagement should not affect donations. "I think a lot of our donors are sophisticated enough to know there can be disgruntled employees in these situations."

Despite the board's continued support of Merritt and confidence in his keen knowledge of animal welfare, others aren't so sure.

In November, John and Gwen Morgen changed plans to leave part of their estate to the San Diego Humane Society, where they are volunteers. "It's almost a dysfunctional organization right now," said John Morgen, a retired manager for Unisys Corp. "John Merritt has a 1950s, chain-of-command management style. He makes decisions in a closed office and has little communication with anyone except the people who report directly to him," Morgen said. "The employees are very resistant to change, which isn't good either. If you ask the employees, they'll say, 'Good, talented people left.' When you ask John Merritt, he'll say, 'Good riddance.' "

By all accounts, Merritt's management style sharply contrasts with that of his predecessors, Fred Lee and Lauren Joniaux, who sought input from the entire staff before making decisions. Under their consensus-seeking leadership, the society resembled a close-knit family rather than a dog-eat-dog corporation. Lee, who died of a heart attack in 1996, had groomed Joniaux to succeed him. The board employed her as interim director for two years at an annual salary of $51,000 before hiring Merritt for $96,000. Donations soared to $5.1 million during Joniaux's final year, but Merritt and trustees attribute that increase to the unpredictable nature of bequests, which are posthumous gifts.

"A lot of people were considered, including Laurie," recalled trustee Robert Esch. "John Merritt is more business-oriented than Fred or Laurie. Each situation requires a different style. There was a lot of concern about building a new facility, looking for land. Our lease was about to expire." Esch, a former chief financial officer for Grossmont Bank, said he considered Merritt to be "head and shoulders above" other job applicants. "John has a particularly horrendous job. He came into an environment where people had lost their saint. Everyone held Fred Lee in high regard. You have to remember that this isn't the usual for-profit workplace. At the Humane Society, people are very passionate about what they do."

Former trustee Lisa Kearns describes herself as one of the few people who felt uneasy on meeting Merritt when she served on the Humane Society board's search committee. "This guy was a suit who talked numbers. I found it strange that he boasted of increasing budget," Kearns recalled. "John is not a warm-and-fuzzy person in any way, shape, or form, but other committee members liked him. Essentially, after a one-hour interview, he was given the job."

Kearns's unease grew over time, she said, as Merritt's descriptions at board meetings often contradicted what she had learned from employees. "Even in my conversations with him, I could see how stories had changed. There would be two different renditions of the same conversation. I once told John to his face that I wouldn't buy a used car from him."

When Kearns's term as trustee ended in September, she was not appointed as an advisor. Instead, another trustee informed Kearns she was "too close to the employees" and that "it's time to move on." Dissension within the society will soon cease, Kearns said, noting that new trustees are taking control and remaining employees who preceded Merritt are searching for other jobs.

Regarding loss of employees, Muñoz agrees with Merritt that losing two-thirds of the staff within two years is not unusual. That translates to about 30 percent a year, which is consistent with attrition before Merritt, she said. But "there's no question that some people, whoever they are, are unhappy."

Hector Cazares, program director of the Department of Animal Control, said the Humane Society's workforce turnover strikes him as high. On hiring Joniaux to be regional director of the county's animal shelter in Carlsbad, he recalled, she was disillusioned about the departures of her society coworkers. The department, which employs about 130 people, loses about 20 workers a year, he estimated. "The Humane Society might be going through what we went through several years ago, when we went to zero-based budgeting. There's a paradigm shift occurring all over the country in government and humane societies. There's more talk of boosting productivity and doing things more efficiently. Bottom-line, this is becoming a business," Cazares said. "Who are we to pass judgment on another agency -- especially if they're a good organization? They're having difficulties. We have them, too."

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