ST. CLAIRSVILLE - The Ohio Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has launched an investigation into the Belmont County Animal Shelter, challenging its practices and its legal status.
On Tuesday, Belmont County commissioners received a public records request for documents covering the activities of the Belmont County Animal Rescue League (BCARL).
The county commissioners accepted the resignation of Dog Warden Verna Painter, effective March 18. Diane Amend, director at the shelter, said Painter's decision to step down had been decided in advance and were not precipitated or accelerated by any legal action.
The BCARL board will meet today to review several matters, including the issue of a new dog warden. Lisa Williams currently holds the position of assistant dog warden.
John A. Bell, attorney for the Ohio SPCA, said the organization was committed to following through with legal action if necessary, but would prefer the animal shelter invited the group to work with them to address the issues.
He noted the majority of record requests go back two years so as not to be too burdensome to respond to. He said the investigation would also look at the shelter's response to instances where owners were allegedly mistreating their animals, as well as allegations concerning the treatment of animals in the shelter's hands.
He added that the OSPCA had heard of some issues as far back as 2007.
"Belmont County has actually been on our radar for a very long time," he said.
Bell added that while the OSPCA cannot enforce the law, they demand adherence to state laws calling for adequate facilities for the impounding of animals. He said the main issue is allegations that large numbers of animals have been kept outside due to a lack of space inside the shelter.
He also raised the issue of the county's relationship with BCARL, which he said is a non-profit organization but not a county humane society. Bell said the law clearly states that if the county delegates enforcement, it must be to a humane society. He pointed out that humane agents are trained and approved by the probate court. He raised doubts that BCARL personnel have legal authority to act as humane agents.
"The law's on our side. The facts are on our side," he said.
Bell referenced allegations against the shelter's practices, saying members may have prevented owners from redeeming their animals, as well as the adoption of animals. He also noted allegations that BCARL has euthanized wanted animals. He said Ohio has strict laws dealing with impounded animals, specifying that the owner must be notified by certified mail and allowed to post bond.
Bell said a decision on whether to take legal action should be made within 30 days.
Commissioners Mark Thomas and Ginny Favede said a copy of the OSPCA's request went to the prosecutor's office to be reviewed by the county's legal counsel.
"Our office will start immediately to compile the records request. By law, we are required to turn over the documents as quickly as possible," Favede said, adding that all documents in the commissioners' office will be turned over to the OSPCA. Other documents are in BCARL's possession.
She added that the prosecutor is looking into BCARL's status as a humane society.
Thomas added that the prosecutor's office and BCARL's attorney have been in a dialogue regarding the issues raised during the past two months. He said they are amicably talking and making progress in addressing some of the issues raised by the OSPCA. He said the commissioners may be making changes to the current contract within two weeks to update policies and procedures.
"We want to make the facility more friendly to the public," he said. "We want to streamline the adoption process and get as many dogs adopted as we can in Belmont County."
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