The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland says Baltimore County officials violated free-speech rights by banning photography at the county-run animal shelter, a move the ACLU describes as an effort to stifle critics.
Deborah Jeon, the organization's legal director, wrote to county officials Thursday asking for a meeting to discuss policies and incidents she says undermine public accountability.
She noted that Don Mohler, chief of staff for County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, posted a message on Facebook in June telling citizens they could not take photos and cited a former volunteer who says she was told she could no longer help at the Baldwin facility because she took pictures of animals there.
"These examples show a government agency endeavoring to limit its exposure to criticism and public accountability, and to stifle any perceived criticism that does arise, even where the agency's purpose of serving the animals of Baltimore County is undermined as a result," Jeon wrote in the letter to county health officer Dr. Gregory William Branch, whose department oversees the shelter, and County Attorney Michael Field.
County spokeswoman Ellen Kobler said the ACLU complaint is without merit and that county attorneys would review the letter.
"This is a story manufactured by a handful of advocates who were disrupting shelter employees from doing their jobs," Kobler said.
Mohler acknowledged the shelter banned photography for a short period during organizational changes, but said visitors are now allowed to take pictures of adoptable animals. He said he believes some volunteers were taking pictures with ulterior motives.
"They wanted to manufacture a crisis, and they would wait around until a dog soiled the cage and immediately take a picture and post it — inferring that the dog had been living in those conditions for a period of time, and that's not true," Mohler said.
Mohler said the real issue is disagreement over how the shelter handles feral cats. He said some advocates want feral cats released into the wild, while officials believe doing so poses a public health risk.
"This is not about photography," Mohler said. "This is about the fact that there is a group of advocates who really want Baltimore County to release wild cats into the community."
The ACLU says banning photography prevents the public from documenting shelter conditions and makes it harder for people to find homes for the animals.
The organization said it sent volunteers posing as a couple who wanted to adopt a pet to the shelter in July with cameras, and they were confronted by an official who said some visitors try to take pictures aimed at making the shelter look bad.
"Though the ACLU testers were permitted to photograph animals for their stated purpose of showing available pets to their young niece, the official stated that this would not have been allowed for a different, 'inappropriate' purpose, such as 'if you were from Channel 2,' " the organization said in a statement.
Kobler said shelter visitors are generally allowed to photograph animals.
"For some animals, the shutter click and the flash can frighten animals that are already nervous in a shelter environment. So sometimes, the staff members might ask people not to take an animal's picture," she said.
Middle River resident Sarah Hardy, who is working with the ACLU, said she volunteered at the shelter for a few months before being told she could no longer help "because I was breaking the photo rule." Hardy, 28, said she took pictures to post online to help find homes for the animals.
"I just wanted the animals to have a fair chance," she said.
The ACLU said other volunteers expressed fear of retaliation if they criticize the shelter operation.
The shelter has been the subject of criticism by some residents who say euthanasia rates are high and that the county doesn't do enough to find homes for the animals. Animal advocates have held a series of protests at the county courthouse this year. County officials have rebutted many of their claims, and the county plans to build a new $6 million shelter.
The shelter is also the subject of a federal lawsuit against the county filed this year by Washington resident Denise Arnot, who volunteers with the Fancy Cats Rescue Team. She claims the county retaliated against her when she complained that the shelter was not working with her organization.
"We think the ACLU letter is spot-on," said Howard Hoffman, Arnot's attorney.
County Councilman John Olszewski Sr., a Dundalk Democrat, said the shelter has made strides in overcoming past issues. He trusts it's being run well.
"Every time there's a policy, there's a reason," he said.