Unrest rains like cats and dogs at Humane Society

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Tranquillity is an abundant commodity at the cemetery in Reisterstown where Penny, Posey and Max have been laid to rest.

Underneath stately oaks, paper flowers have been placed over gray stone markers, many of them carved with loving tributes like those to Penny ("My Best Friend"), Posey ("Thank You for Loving Me") and Max ("You Will Always Sing in Our Hearts").

The peaceful pet cemetery at the entrance to the Humane Society of Baltimore County is evidence of the passion people feel for their pets and the dedication of Elsie Seeger Barton, an animal lover sufficiently moved by the plight of strays that she left her 325-acre estate along with a $6 million endowment to the society when she died in May 1983.

But these days, a storm is brewing over the way Mrs. Barton's money is being spent.

The dispute has pitted new board members against older members, provoked the ouster of the board's president, prompted heated meetings and led to allegations of fiscal mismanagement that have spawned a lawsuit in Baltimore County Circuit Court.

The suit, filed May 3 by former board member Paul Blair, asks for a court order to require the society's finance chairman to turn over the organization's accounts to an accountant for an independent audit of the group's financial records.

Donations and money from Mrs. Barton's trust add up to an annual income between $250,000 and $350,000 per year, the suit alleges.

Mr. Blair says the level of financial support is not showing up in the way the organization maintains its facilities.

"The question is, where is the money going, how is it being spent? That's all I want to know," said Mr. Blair, a nuclear engineer.

Officials at the society say that the money's been well-spent and that they do everything possible to find good homes for the 200 dogs and cats brought to the shelter each month.

"These allegations are just preposterous," said Herbert E. Witz, the estate lawyer who is the society's finance chairman.

"We don't have anything to hide here."

He said the dispute centers on Mr. Blair's failure to subscribe to the society's philosophy, as established by Mrs. Barton, which is based on the practice of keeping animals in a humane environment and destroying them when necessary.

"What Mr. Blair wants is a 'no-kill' shelter, which just wouldn't work," said Mr. Witz. "You shouldn't join a group if you don't believe in its philosophy."

A "no-kill" shelter would mean not destroying any of the animals, a practice that would make it impossible for the shelter to take in any animals once the facilities now available for the 20 cats and 30 dogs are filled up.

Because the shelter takes in every animal brought to it, it must destroy some animals, said Kate Pullen, shelter manager.

"Having a no-kill shelter sounds good to the public, but it just doesn't work. The space fills up," said Ms. Pullen.

"The humane society is the last place people go," said Ms. Pullen, who said she saw the alternative when she drove an animal shelter ambulance that picked up stray pets in Michigan.

That alternative is much worse, she said.

"If we say no, those dogs are going to be out on the street, and on the street an animal is going to die, and not in any humane way. They get hit by cars; they starve.

"It can be awful."

According to a society report, the shelter destroyed 283 dogs and 470 cats that it could not place in homes in the 16-month period ending April 30, 1991.

Another 107 dogs and 46 cats were destroyed at their owners' request in the same period, the report said.

Mr. Blair denies that he advocates a no-kill shelter.

"I'm realistic enough to know that, unfortunate as it is, there are times when you have to put animals down," he said.

In an interview conducted in his lawyer's office, he called that issue "a smoke screen" to draw the focus away from his request for an independent audit of operations over the past 10 years.

Mr. Blair says his problems began shortly after he was elected to the 21-member board in May 1990 and someone recommended buying $20,000 worth of new animal cages.

"I asked, 'Do we have money for that in the budget? What is our budget anyway?' Mr. Blair said.

"They wouldn't tell me," he said.

Mr. Blair continued asking questions.

He wondered why an organization with an annual income of $300,000 opted to keep an entire wing of the shelter vacant, rather than opening it up and saving more animals from being destroyed.

Stormy meetings followed.

"They'd have the meetings in the conference room here. There'd be yelling and shouting. They would be in meetings three, three and a half hours; and nothing would get accomplished," said Stephen M. Schenning, the attorney for the humane society.

Mr. Blair says he was "disinvited" from the board, essentially being struck from the office list that alerted board members to meetings.

His daughter, Beth, the former board president, was ousted.

Mr. Blair hired an attorney.

The attorney called and then wrote a letter asking the humane society to open its books for an audit.

Mr. Blair waited 30 days for a reply.

Then he filed suit.

People donate money to this organization because it's a charity. It stands to reason that at least the board of directors should have access to its financial condition," said Eliot M. Wagonheim, one of Mr. Blair's attorneys.

Mr. Witz, who was a personal friend and lawyer for Mrs. Barton, said many of the points outlined in Mr. Blair's suit are "just plain wrong," such as the allegation that the society has failed to file tax returns with the Internal Revenue Service in recent years.

"We've filed our returns. Otherwise, we'd be jeopardizing our non-profit status, and we wouldn't do that," Mr. Witz said.

Federal tax returns of non-profit agencies are publicly available in 30 to 60 days after requests are submitted in writing.

But Aaron Welsch, an IRS spokesman in Baltimore, said that the agency could not say whether returns were filed.

NTC The suit also points out that Mr. Witz's daughter and son-in-law live in one of the four houses on the property at a reduced rent and are earning salaries as caretakers.

Mr. Witz said the job and house were offered to the couple years ago without his knowledge.

"They came to me after the fact, after it had been all worked out," said Mr. Witz.

Mr. Witz said the society took in $89,000 in fees for spaying, animal adoptions, burials and fees in 1990 and netted another $35,000 from interest earned on securities.

The Barton Trust contributed $200,000 last year for the spay-neutering center, the pet cemetery and the maintenance of buildings and grounds, he said.

Mr. Witz said that for the past 20 years the financial records were compiled in bound ledger sheets "that looked like something right out of Charles Dickens" and were kept by the same woman, an 85-year-old bookkeeper who recently retired.

"She wouldn't let a penny go unaccounted for," he said.

The society also has kept a certified public accountant on retainer to keep track of the books over the years.

The accountant has recently completed an audit available to anyone who wants to see it, he said.

But Mr. Blair said that he would like to see an independent audit that would go back 10 years and be completed by a certified public accountant not connected with the society who had access to all receipts and disbursements.

He said without such an accounting, Mr. Witz is basically asking donors to accept his word that the society's fiscal house is in order.

"At this point, they may portray themselves as completely open," said Michael J. Fradkin, Mr. Blair's co-counsel.

"But the fact is, we wouldn't have had to do this if they had been so open with us from the start."

But Mr. Schenning said such an audit would cost $30,000.

"The question becomes who is going to pay for this audit," Mr. Schenning said. "Should the society be required to cover such an expense because of one disgruntled board member? I don't think that's fair."

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