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Change needed at Petaluma Animal Shelter

While the nonprofit organization that operates the Petaluma Animal Shelter under contract with the City of Petaluma has done a commendable job taking care of animals, recent reports indicate it has done a poor job caring for many of its human employees.

Several current and former staffers at the organization reached out to the Argus-Courier last month and detailed complaints they have made against Jeff Charter, the executive director, involving ongoing racial and sexual harassment they say has created a hostile work environment.

At least three staff members of the Petaluma Animal Services Foundation 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. The lawsuits were settled out of court.

Interviews with six current and former staff members of the foundation paint a clear picture of mismanagement where some workers said Charter and his favored employees denigrated and harassed them. Their comments are supported by documents sent to the foundation’s board over the last two years.

Animal Control Officer Mark Scott, who is black, said that Charter and a female employee who is related to Charter used racially-charged language in the office to describe him. Scott said Charter’s relative used the N-word numerous times, and once told him to “shut my chocolate mouth.”

Petaluma City Councilman Gabe Kearney, who last year was the council liaison to the Animal Services Advisory Committee, said he is deeply troubled by the complaints.

“There is no reason why, if any staff member uses that kind of language, they should still be there, period,” Kearney said. “To say that I’m disappointed with the management of the animal shelter is an understatement.”

We have to agree with Councilman Kearney.

The foundation, which was born out of a city decision to cut its animal services division in 2012, has a $478,000 contract with the City of Petaluma to perform animal control and adoption services. It receives more than $300,000 annually in charitable donations and grants. By most accounts, the nonprofit has done an excellent job rescuing and caring for animals and is credited with lowering the euthanization rate at the animal shelter. During times of disaster, like the recent North Bay wildfires, the organization rescued dozens of animals left behind in the chaos.

However, the well-documented charges by employees amply demonstrates that the shelter’s workplace culture is, in all likelihood, illegal according to federal employment guidelines that prohibit discrimination, harassment and retaliation in the workplace.

Despite all of this, the foundation’s board of directors has chosen to retain Charter as its executive director. As puzzling as that decision may be to the public, that is the board’s right. It will, however, be up to donors and city officials to hold Charter and the foundation to a much higher standard of management that includes doing a better job of respecting employees.

City leaders, in particular, must take a hard look at the city’s contract with the foundation when it comes up for renewal in July. In addition to demanding that all metrics relating to animal care are being met, the city must also demand an end to the kind of workplace discrimination and harassment that has plagued the foundation. If these issues persist, the city should consider contracting with another animal services provider.