Following months of complaints from animal welfare advocates, members of the Baltimore County Council voted unanimously Monday to create an animal services advisory commission.
Commission members will be charged with reviewing the operations of the shelter and the county's Animal Services Division, and offering recommendations for changes.
Each council member will appoint one member to the commission, and the county executive will appoint four members: A veterinarian, a member of an animal welfare organization, a shelter employee and an at-large member.
Councilwoman Vicki Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat who is the bill's lead sponsor, said she is "very excited" about the bill and the opportunity to evaluate practices at the Baltimore County Animal Shelter in Baldwin.
Animal welfare activists and shelter volunteers praised the creation of the commission as a first step toward reforming the county's animal services operations.
"Our hope is to see our shelter improve for people and animals," said Nicole Zeicher-Larine, member of a group called Reform Baltimore County Animal Services.
Deborah Stone, who blogs about the shelter's issues, lauded the council members not only for creating the commission, but for all seven members agreeing to be cosponsors.
"This sends an enormously powerful message," she said.
The advocates' chief complaints include difficulties in volunteering at the shelter, shelter staff euthanizing animals too quickly, some adoptable animals being kept from public view and shelter staff not doing an adequate job of photographing animals and promoting adoptions.
Fred Homan, the county's chief administrative officer, said the county has made changes to improve the shelter, which he said operates under challenging circumstances because it cannot turn away any animals. The county is building a replacement shelter that should open later this year.
"We are hopeful that the discussion of this commission enlightens people to what happens there," he said.
As the animal services commission moves forward, other issues regarding the shelter remain.
A Virginia woman who volunteers with the Fancy Cats Rescue Team continues to pursue a federal lawsuit against the county, alleging that the then-shelter director retaliated after she complained about the shelter's standard of care for cats.
Also, the ACLU complained in the fall that volunteers' free speech rights were violated when shelter employees prohibited them from taking photographs in the shelter. County Attorney Mike Field said "productive conversations" with the ACLU are ongoing.