In March of 2016, we posted a blog called “Transparency and the Public Trust.” We were having some issues getting records from the City Attorney’s Office related to Huntsville Animal Services. Since that time, we have had periodic struggles getting records from the City.
The Alabama Open Records Act is pretty comprehensive in scope and provides for only certain exceptions which make records protected from public disclosure. It is our position that the only shelter records which may be subject to redaction prior to disclosure are those which contain personal information regarding the identities of people who surrendered animals to the shelter. All other records, whether kept in paper form or electronic form, are public records as set forth in Code of Alabama, Section 36-12-40 and are to be disclosed to anyone seeking them, regardless of where they live. The law states: “Every citizen has a right to inspect and take a copy of any public writing of this state, except as otherwise expressly provided by statute.”
We do an Open Records Act Request letter which we send to the city every month to seek both the monthly statistics and to seek a document called the “euthanasia” report which sets forth details regarding which animals were destroyed and why. We have received those records fairly regularly, although we often have to ask two or three times to receive them. When we sought copies of kennel cards for dogs destroyed in 2015 for issues related to behavior, we were told that the cards were not public record. When we pushed back, we were told months later that we could have the cards but that it would cost $5 to get each card because they had to be reviewed by an attorney. We disagreed with this process completely. It is not uncommon for advocates to seek and get kennel cards, none of which contain any confidential or proprietary information. We gave up on our pursuit of the cards (like the one shown below which is from Houston) due to cost and due to age; by the time the city agreed to produce them for a fee, the information was too dated to be of much value.
(click on the image above to view a pdf copy; this is an example from Houston)
As of today, the following requested public records regarding Huntsville Animal Services have yet to be provided to No Kill Huntsville or otherwise made available to the public:
-data regarding animal intakes and outcomes in 2016 specific to dogs (intake date, perceived breed, age, gender, outcome date and outcome type)
-data regarding animal intakes and outcomes in 2016 specific to cats (intake date, age, gender, outcome date and outcome type)
-monthly statistics for March of 2017
-monthly statistics for April of 2017
We can only speculate as to why this information has not been forthcoming. The city was doing a fairly good job of keeping the monthly statistics posted on the shelter website, but if you go there now, you will see the last reported month is February. Because we have obtained the euthanasia reports for each month going back to October of 2015, we know that the data on the monthly statistics forms often does not match the euthanasia reports. For example, the monthly report for February indicates that 17 dogs were destroyed. The euthanasia report shows that 16 dogs were destroyed. From November of 2016 through January of 2017, monthly reports show that 81 dogs were destroyed. The euthanasia reports, however, show that 74 dogs were destroyed. We cannot explain these discrepancies, but it is possible that we have not been provided the annual data we seek for dogs and cats for 2016 because the data has not been audited and there are more discrepancies to be found.
So. Why does any of this matter? There are two reasons.
The first reason is that the City of Huntsville has made claims about progress by relying on statistical data. As we have said numerous times before, we focus not on the math, but on the method. We honestly don’t care what the “stats” say as long as healthy and treatable animals are not being destroyed. That may result in a Live Release Rate of 98% one month and 88% the next month (if there truly were a lot of animals who were suffering and had to be euthanized or a large number of dogs who presented a genuine public safety risk, as opposed to just being scared or traumatized). The City has made a big deal out of having a Live Release Rate above 90%, a number which can be a positive indicator of progress. We recognize the progress that has been made and we continue to applaud that progress regularly. Animals in our shelter are now safer than at any time in the history of the city as other communities look to Huntsville in their efforts to reform their own shelters.
The second reason this matters relates to public trust. Put simply, in order to keep the level of public trust which has been established through positive change, the shelter operation must be completely transparent. There is a new phrase going around these days about whether or not there “is a there there.” We think it is entirely appropriate for the shelter to be fully transparent regarding its operations because it is a city department which is funded by tax dollars and because there really should be nothing to hide. The Live Release Rate in January was 94%. It was 96% in February. Absent some catastrophic event regarding shelter animals of which we are not aware, we presume that the statistics for March and April are equally strong.
The ASPCAs Position Statement on Responsibilities of Animal Shelters speaks to this very point:
Goal 4: Animal sheltering is increasingly transparent
The ASPCA strongly supports a requirement that key records and data be maintained by all shelters, both public and private, routinely reported to an appropriate central entity, and made available to the public. While much of this information, for public shelters at least, may already be considered a public record under various state laws, the ASPCA believes that standardizing the information that must be collected and extending these requirements to private shelters is not only an important step toward transparency, but also an effective way to gain a fuller picture of the community’s at-risk animals. When the only information available concerning intake and outcomes is that which must be provided by public shelters through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, the public is receiving an incomplete and perhaps distorted representation of these matters.
The shelter director herself blogged on the subject of transparency a couple of months ago in an article called “The Never Ending Challenge to Save Shelter Pets.” She spoke of the need for shelters to report data, stating, "The City of Huntsville has been sharing data since 2000, and we’ve become even more transparent. Now, there’s a fear and anxiety with being transparent, because you’re talking about taking the lives of animals. But being open is part of the process. . .It’s going to be painful when the data comes out, but shelters that do that will be surprised how quickly things can change because it helps them do their job better and it’s something to share with community leaders and elected officials to get more help." She went to to issue a challenge to all counties in Alabama to get "on board" to be transparent in record keeping.
We could not agree more. Now all that we ask is that the City of Huntsville and Huntsville Animal Services follow their own advice by posting the statistics for the months of March and April on the shelter website and by providing us with the data we seek for 2016 regarding intakes and outcomes.
If there is "no there there" the city should having nothing to hide and should share this data without hesitation as it demonstrates through actions that transparency is vital to improving operations and keeping the public engaged.
(images courtesy of the City of Huntsville)