BY CHERYL SLAVIN
When Lizanne Fiorentino took the helm of the Hi Tor Animal Care Center Board of Directors in January 2014, she adamantly proclaimed that it was her intent, and that of the new board, to usher in an era of transparency, fiscal responsibility and improved relations with volunteers and staff. Now a year and a half later she has resigned, the reasons for her departure shrouded in secrecy, and the public left wondering as much as ever as to whether any board will ever provide long lasting, cohesive and trustworthy leadership for Rockland’s only animal shelter.
“Significant disagreements about the direction of Hi Tor and operational changes that I believe need to be made for the long term good of the organization led to my decision to resign as president and a member of the board,” is all Fiorentino has offered by way of explanation for her decision. New board president Michelle McCarthy is similarly cryptic: “It has been a very busy time…with much for me to absorb in my new role. As such, any discussions at this early stage would be premature.” When asked for further elaboration McCarthy stated that they are in the “midst of reorganizing,” and would not be able to respond until later in the summer.
What is certain is that Hi Tor has suffered a long history of leadership and personnel changes amid constant allegations of financial and personal misconduct brought by and against board members, staff and volunteers. One former volunteer in 2014 placed the number of changes at 15 resignations and 4 terminations within the three previous years. Certainly since 2012 the organization has seen the termination of the contracts of two executive directors, the resignation of an operations manager as well as a chief fundraising volunteer, and a change in board presidency from Roberta Bangs to Fiorentino and now to McCarthy. There is currently no executive director. Whether as the result of conflict or of financial need, the inability to retain staff and volunteers might very well be a contributing factor to the inability to get fundraising, repairs and rebuilding moving forward.
Meanwhile, Rockland’s only full service animal shelter remains underfunded and overcrowded. It has been well documented that the current facility, a county owned building on county owned land, is in deplorable condition while animals are housed in every conceivable corner and room, including storerooms and temporary trailers. The organization’s commitment, along with that of the volunteers, to the well-being of the animals has remained steadfast. But critics continue to complain that the animals cannot be well cared for under the current circumstances, and point to the continuous infighting as the reason why remediation has stalled.
Personal acrimony certainly appears to have played its part in delaying efforts to build a new facility. In June of 2014, after serving for two years as chair of the Rebuild Hi Tor committee, Don Franchino resigned under protest after being subjected to an investigation, at the request of the board, by the Rockland District Attorney as well as the state Attorney General’s office. Accusations of mishandled funds and improper authority flew between Franchino and the board. In the end, Franchino was never charged with any impropriety, and the approximately $300,000 he had raised for the Rebuild project was placed for safekeeping with the Rockland Community Foundation. Since then, however, no further monies have been deposited in that account, raising further questions about the state of Hi Tor’s fundraising efforts.
Financial difficulties have also played a large part in Hi Tor’s troubles. At least as far back as 2012 then Legislator Ed Day, along with Legislator Aldan Wolfe, had voiced concern about the effect of declining funding on Hi Tor’s ability to operate. In March of 2013 the same legislators attempted to pass a resolution to fund repairs at Hi Tor. Neither of these efforts came to fruition, and the conditions at the facility continued to deteriorate in the face of decreased county funding and flat-lined municipal contributions.
There have been some bright spots. In August 2014 County Executive Ed Day signed a letter of intent with Hi Tor leadership, in which he affirmed the county’s commitment to a new shelter funded by Hi Tor to be built on county land. This LOI does not carry any legal weight—any transfer of land would have to be approved by the entire legislature—but it does generally indicate the county’s continued support. Moreover, Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski has secured a $500,000 reimbursement grant to be applied toward the costs of a new building. And, most recently, the county legislature has approved a $500,000 capital project for a new Hi Tor shelter. Wolfe states that he will soon ask the county finance commissioner to consult with bond counsel in order to procure funding for this initiative.
None of the elected officials have been in contact with Hi Tor since the change of leadership and have no more idea than the public about what is going on. Still, all of them have consistently affirmed that regardless of who is at Hi Tor’s helm, their commitment remains to the welfare of the animals and the safety of the public at large. In light of Hi Tor’s trouble retaining personnel, this might be considered the best news of all.