BY JESSICA WARREN
New City – The rain did not deter former volunteers and staff supportive of recently-terminated Hi Tor Director Michael Sanducci as they gathered on Tuesday, November 6.
Protesters came together to protest the actions of the board of Hi Tor Care Center in Pomona. Their second protest was held outside the Rockland County Legislature building on Main St. in New City at 12 p.m. The protesters continuously chanted “FIRE – THE – BOARD!” as cars passed by.
Controversy hit the animal shelter on Thursday, October 25, when former shelter manager, Michael Sanducci, was fired by the Hi Tor Board for job abandonment. To hear their side of the story, multiple employees, including Sanducci, went to the County of Rockland on Oct. 25 during work hours to stand up against poor conditions at Hi Tor.
Sanducci said a board member made racially insensitive remarks and had been bullying himself and others about their job security. Stephen Powers, Rockland County’s director of public policy and intergovernmental relations, was able to mitigate the crisis, allowing the employees to work again. For Sanducci, however, the director was called to a separate meeting with the board and was let go.
The board accused Sanducci and the staff of abandoning the animals when they left to meet up with the county. He said in his defense, “We did what we do any other day. We took care of the animals in the shelter; we fed and cleaned them, and secured every animal in the cages.”
He continued by saying, “This isn’t one or two disgruntled employees, this is an entire organization standing up together and saying this is not okay. That was the message we wanted to get across.”
Rockland County Executive Ed Day voiced his insight on the shelter’s conditions after visiting there on Monday, November 6. He stated the facility was already in better condition when health inspectors visited it on Saturday, November 3, after being denied by Hi Tor’s management twice.
Day said the County of Rockland’s responsibility is to contract with organizations to do a particular job and to make sure it gets done. He also said, “To those who say I should fire the board, I am not authorized to fire the board. As far as the firing of the shelter manager, this was a decision that was made solely by the Board of Directors for Hi Tor.”
The county offered two options for the organization, which is to terminate their contract with Hi Tor, or to remain working with them. Day said he urges people to work together and attempt to get beyond this situation. The Board defended themselves with a press release on Tuesday, November 6, stating that they attempted to improve policies but received no response from management. They also announced they will be operating only by appointment for drop-offs and adoptions. The Board will notify people when the shelter can carry on normal operations.
Samantha Reitzes, a volunteer/foster for Hi-Tor, is one of many who are troubled by the incident. She said, “The reason why the staff is no longer there is irrelevant at the moment because the animals and their welfare should be the main concern. They need attention not only to remain healthy but to have success in getting adopted which they so desperately deserve.”
At the Legislature meeting on Wednesday, November 7, dozens of residents appealed to lawmakers to help restore Sanducci’s position. Members of the public also decried the current conditions of the shelter, claiming that the level of care provided at the facility has rapidly deteriorated without Sanducci’s guidance. Caroline Higgins, a frequent volunteer at the shelter, went so far as to show the legislature a recent picture she had taken of a Hi Tor cat suffering from a bloody nose; “this would never happen under Michaels watch” she concluded. “These people need to be there,” said Lisa Phillips, another Hi Tor volunteer, referring not only to Sanducci but his fellow employees, many of whom resigned in a show of solidarity with their manager.
Sanducci said at the Legislature meeting, “I did what I thought was best, I lead my staff over to the county executive’s office to voice our concerns about the work and safety hazards for the animals and the staff on the property being the board of directors ignored our complaints numerous times. We thought our last resort was to go to the land lord of our building, we felt they would have some obligation to help us.
“The roof leaks rusty water in almost every room in the shelter, there’s parts of the shelter that have black mold behind the walls, and their problems with ventilation systems and all kinds of other things…Our staff has been mistreated, overworked, underpaid, and recently we had some racial discrimination go on with some of the employees here.”
Joe Kuhn contributed to this article