Shelter director under fire

A vocal minority is calling for the ouster of Jefferson Parish’s latest animal shelter director, but Parish President John Young has expressed full confidence in the woman he credits with turning around animal services in the parish.

For the past two months, volunteer Alissa Johnson has complained to the Jefferson Parish Council that Animal Shelter Director Robin Beaulieu has barred her from the east bank animal shelter without cause.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Johnson was joined by another volunteer and former east bank shelter veterinarian John Edwards, who said Beaulieu has instituted questionable practices at the shelter and shown favoritism in finding a new veterinarian.

Edwards previously made those complaints in a lengthy letter sent to the council earlier this month.

At issue appears to be Edwards’ termination as the shelter veterinarian, a position he’s held since 2008.

Edwards claims he was terminated after questioning some of Beaulieu’s decisions, such as providing free spay/neuter services to pet owners instead of directing them to private, low-cost facilities.

Johnson said she’s been barred for asking tough questions and supporting Edwards.

Edwards claims that Beaulieu has caused the shelter to regress, and he questions whether she’s making the proper decisions for public safety.

He also accused parish officials of selecting a new veterinarian in a way that prevented him from applying for the position.

“I feel like I’ve been working in a hostile work environment,” said Edwards, who left the shelter earlier this month, roughly two months before his contract was set to expire. “I think there is a pretty picture being painted on this shelter, and I think there are some bad things happening underneath it all.”

Loren Marino, Young’s chief administrative assistant, challenged many of the assertions by Edwards’ and his supporters.

She painted the issue as an employment dispute that’s turned ugly. Marino also balked at a request by Edwards to have the veterinarian selection reopened so that Edwards could submit his application after he says he was denied that opportunity by a change in normal procedure.

“We’re pretty aware of who they are and what the issues surround,” Marino said. “I think, unfortunately, the facts here are sort of being manipulated.”

Several council members expressed ignorance of concerns about Beaulieu, and Councilman Chris Roberts said the council needs more information.

He said it seemed like Edwards and the volunteers were targeted for removal after they reached out to the council for help. He suggested holding a public meeting so that everyone’s issues can be aired.

“We need to get to the bottom of what is going on at this facility.” Roberts said. “You’ve got to understand how this comes across as suspect.”

But the complaints regarding Beaulieu were matched by several proclamations of support from volunteers at the shelter and people who worked with Beaulieu at Animal Rescue New Orleans. They extolled her passion for animals and her vision for moving the shelter forward. Young said Beaulieu has been outstanding in a position that he argued might be the most difficult in the parish.

“Probably one of the most thankless jobs in parish government is being the director of, or working at, that animal shelter,” Young said.

Prior to Beaulieu’s hiring 14 months ago, the shelter had six different directors in four years, and Beaulieu’s predecessor only lasted seven months.

An inspection by the Humane Society of Louisiana found widespread dysfunction at the east bank shelter in part due to poor staff training, tight budgets and lax policies. In addition, the West Bank shelter is in disrepair and has been the site of multiple disease outbreaks.

Young said Beaulieu has been able to turn many of those problems around, citing a rising adoption rate and a shrinking euthanization rate. Plans are now in the works to build a new $8 million West Bank shelter, although the parish has not identified a final site or funding source. Young said he’s committed to Beaulieu, adding that the Humane Society’s recent inspection of the center only found minor problems.

“It’s not perfect ladies and gentleman, but I can tell you she does have passion,” Young said.