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Petaluma animal shelter workplace under scrutiny

The head of the Petaluma Animal Services Foundation has been accused of mismanagement by current and former employees, who claim the executive director creates a culture that some staff members described as a hostile work environment.

Several employees of the nonprofit that runs the Petaluma Animal Shelter said that Jeff Charter, the executive director, and other staff members use derogatory racial and sexual language in the office, despite complaints that it makes some employees feel uncomfortable.

The organization has a large contract with the city, which is up for renewal next year, and at least one city council member said the accusations are credible and troubling.

The Petaluma Police Department also investigated allegations of financial mismanagement at the foundation and turned its findings over to the board of directors, which launched its own internal audit. The board also brought in an outside firm to review the foundation’s human resources practices.

Charter, 44, who is also a member of the foundation’s board, did not return multiple messages seeking comment and did not respond to a detailed list of questions. He referred all requests for comment to Katherine Wells, the president of the board, who expressed confidence in Charter’s ability to lead the foundation.

“We are confident that our executive director will continue to ensure that the foundation carries out its mission of providing reliable shelter and rescue services to our community,” she said in a statement.

Mark Scott, a senior animal control officer, said he has made multiple complaints to the board and has documented workplace incidents that he found offensive, but so far no changes have been made.

“They say they have looked into all of this, but nothing has been done,” said Scott, who has worked at the Petaluma Animal Shelter for five years. “It’s not normal.”

‘Like walking on eggshells’

Scott, who is black, said Charter and another employee who is related to Charter used racially-charged language in the office to describe him. He said Charter called him “an honorary white guy,” which he found offensive. Scott said Charter’s relative used the N-word several times, and once told him to “shut my chocolate mouth,” he said.

Scott said he complained about the racial language to Charter and to the board, but he said that the behavior continued.

“I’ve written reports about the racism, but nothing was said or done,” he said. “I’d like to see a change in management.”

City Councilman Gabe Kearney, who last year was the council liaison to the Animal Services Advisory Committee, said he was deeply troubled by the internal complaints, especially the alleged racial language.

“The allegations of racial epithets is entirely unacceptable. There is no justification for it,” he said. “There is no reason why, if any staff member uses that kind of language, they should still be there, period. To say that I’m disappointed with the management of the animal shelter is an understatement.”

Interviews with six current and former staff members of the foundation paint a picture of an unprofessional office culture where some workers said Charter and his favored employees denigrated and harassed them. Their comments are supported by documents sent to the board of directors detailing concerning incidents.

Kendall Lewis worked as a kennel technician at the Petaluma Animal Shelter from April 2015 until December last year, when she resigned due to what she said was an office culture that “was almost like high school.” In an interview, Lewis described a workplace where Charter would belittle employees in front of other staff members.

Just after she left the shelter, Lewis documented her concerns in an email to Wells. Lewis claimed that Charter “threatens the employees with termination if they are caught passing information to the board.” In her email, she wrote that Charter disrespected employees.

“Over my time there, I have heard Jeff Charter say mean, horrible things about … employees for no reason at all,” she wrote. “It seems extremely unfair to me to see people put so much effort and dedication onto the shelter and its animals, only to receive such a lack of respect.”

Employees have also complained about Charter having conversations about sex in the office. Misty Carstarphen, a customer service representative at the animal shelter, complained in April that Charter took a picture of her bending over and showed it to other employees.

Carstarphen also said that Charter unfairly reprimands some employees for offenses that favored employees would get away with, creating a culture that she described as favoritism. In one instance, an employee allegedly brought marijuana to the office for another employee who was not there, so the drugs were stored in the office all day. When other staff members complained to Charter that the incident made them feel uncomfortable, he allegedly gave the two employees a verbal warning.

Carstarphen said that work-related stress has caused health problems, for which she has recently seen a doctor.

“PASF has become an increasingly hostile work environment for me,” she wrote in an email. “PASF no longer feels like a team, and the animals and customers ultimately suffer as a consequence of selfish actions.”

Kathy Sousa, a cat care coordinator who has worked at the animal shelter for 17 years going back to when the city ran the facility, said the current management is the worst it has ever been. She said Charter and a clique of employees hold “secret” meetings and say things that other employees find disrespectful.

“This is the environment we are working in at the shelter,” she said. “You can’t say anything. You can’t defend yourself. You’re kind of walking on eggshells all the time. We are not functioning as a team.”

Charter did not respond to an email seeking comment about the office culture, including questions about the racist language, sexual conversations and the marijuana incident.

The board recently hired Maier Law Group, a labor and employment law firm, to investigate foundation workplace complaints. Wells declined to provide a copy of the firm’s report or discuss the results, citing employee privacy concerns.

Incubated at the city

The foundation, with more than $1 million in annual revenues, has a $478,000 contract with the city of Petaluma to perform animal control and adoption services. It also has smaller contracts with Healdsburg, Calistoga and Cloverdale and receives more than $300,000 annually in charitable donations and grants, according to tax filings.

A staff of about 10 work at the Petaluma Animal Shelter on Hopper Street, where they care for rescued animals awaiting adoption and sell dog licenses.

At least three staff members have quit in recent years, citing an uncomfortable work place culture. Two other employees were fired and filed wrongful termination lawsuits against the foundation and Charter, alleging that he harassed and retaliated against them. Those suits were settled, according to the lawyer who represented both former employees. The lawyer could not discuss the details of the settlements due to confidentiality agreements.

The foundation was born out of a city decision to cut its animal services division in 2012. Charter, Valerie Fausone and Sue Davey stepped in to form the nonprofit, which won a city contract to run the animal shelter and perform animal control services in Petaluma.

Davey, who worked as office manager and left in 2015, said she felt uncomfortable with the office culture, especially after noticing what she described as unorthodox accounting practices. She said Charter “pushed me out when I started asking too many questions” about some of the unusual business practices at the shelter.

“I decided to find another job, rather than put up with the constant ridicule and the drama,” she said. “I’d like to see the people who work there treated as well as the animals are so they can do their jobs.”

Financial questions

In May the Petaluma Police Department opened an investigation into the foundation’s financial practices, according to Lt. Tim Lyons, who could not discuss details of the investigation because he said the case was still open. Lyons said the department provided the board of directors with information uncovered in the investigation. He said police would require the board’s consent as a “victim” in order to pursue any potential criminal charges.

Lyons said the board told police that it conducted its own financial audit, which informed a decision not to press charges.

“The information we were initially given was credible enough to open an investigation,” Lyons said. “We reached out to the board and let them know the information we received. They reported back that they didn’t find any financial stuff that would rise to the level of a crime.”

Foundation employees with access to the organization’s bank records said several purchases that Charter made raised red flags, including a $3,000 boat and a $3,500 four-day trip to Michigan with his family.

The boat, purchased in December 2015 for animal rescues on the Petaluma River, has never been used on the river, employees said. However, they said Charter stocked the boat with fishing gear and has been seen towing it off site to use on fishing trips. Wells said the board authorized the boat purchase, and Charter took it out twice to test the motor.

Charter took his family of four on a trip to Michigan in June 2016 using foundation money, according to bank records. Wells said Charter attended a Society of Animal Welfare Administrators conference and combined the trip with a family vacation, for which he reimbursed the foundation a portion of the expenses.

Charter’s compensation is $112,399, according to tax filings.

Wells, a financial advisor with Edward Jones and a volunteer with the police department’s fraud prevention division, said the board was satisfied that its outside audit found no wrongdoing. A copy of the report, prepared by independent auditor Goranson and Associates, contained no mention of financial mismanagement.

“The board vehemently denies the allegation that the foundation’s executive director is mismanaging the foundation, and there is no evidence to support the claims about financial misconduct,” Wells said in a statement.

Contract up for renewal

Beyond internal complaints of mismanagement, the Petaluma Animal Services Foundation has not been criticized for its main function — rescuing and caring for lost and abandoned animals. Lyons said the police department works well with animal control officers. Petaluma City Manager John Brown said the city has been satisfied with the service the foundation has provided.

“There hasn’t been a single reporting period where we have said we haven’t gotten our money’s worth,” he said. “We always have. We have not been unhappy.”

In an October report to the city, the shelter stated that it took in 1,346 animals from Aug. 1, 2016 to July 31, 2017. During the same period, 572 animals were adopted and 35 were euthanized. The shelter’s live release rate was 96.9 percent, according to the report. Calls for service increased to 3,306 this year, from 2,591 last year.

The foundation has deftly used Facebook to promote its fundraisers and adoptions. It uses the platform to connect stray animals with owners and often highlights harrowing and unique rescues — this year animal control officers caught an alligator, an elephant seal and a coati in Petaluma.

Known for his passion for helping animals, Charter has dedicated resources for rescue efforts during recent disasters. In 2015, Charter sent a team to Lake County to rescue animals displaced by the Valley Fire, despite initial resistance from local animal control authorities. Charter and other staff members flew to New Orleans in October, returning with dozens of dogs and cats abandoned in the hurricanes in the southern U.S.

During Sonoma County’s recent wildfires, Petaluma Animal Services provided shelter to a dozen animals rescued in Santa Rosa and Sonoma Valley. The foundation also provided a “Cuddle Shuttle” to look after as many as 50 pets for 10 days while their owners stayed inside an evacuation center at Lucchesi Park.

The city’s original three-year contract with the foundation was renewed for another three years in 2015. The contract will be up for renewal in 2018, and Brown said there are not many local providers, besides Sonoma County Animal Services, that could compete if the contract was open for bidding.

“I’m not aware of anyone else burning down the door to provide nonprofit animal services,” he said.

Brown said he was aware of the financial mismanagement allegations and workplace complaints, and he said he was interested in seeing how the board treats its investigations.

Petaluma Mayor David Glass said that the foundation has reduced the kill rate at the shelter since taking over the animal shelter from the city. He said he did not want the foundation’s internal issues overshadowing the work they do with animals.

“I am aware of the process the board is taking, and I will reserve judgment until any outcome comes of it,” he said. “The metric of service to animals, that’s were my thoughts are focused. The city has gotten good success for the animals.”

Councilman Kearney said that he wants the council to take a hard look at the foundation when the animal shelter contract is up next year. He said he wants the city to have more oversight control in the contract.

“If and when we renew the contract, there would have to be some serious changes to the oversight in our audit function,” he said.

For his part, Scott said he chose to speak out because he appreciates the value of the animal shelter to the community, and he wants to see a change in the workplace culture.

“We don’t want the shelter to implode, we’re just trying to change the culture,” he said. “The shelter does a lot of good. It’s really a culture we’re talking about.”

(Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)