‘Buddy” Group, with $2.2 Million Cecil County Animal Control Deal, and Allies Push Legal Steps Against Critics, Oversight Panel
A CECIL TIMES Special ReportâFirst in a Series
A Buddy for Life, a Delaware animal rescue group with a more than $2.2 million Cecil County government contract for animal control, has hired a lawyer to threaten an unpaid volunteer who complained to county officials about conditions for animals housed at the groupâs rented shelter. And a county oversight panel tasked with reviewing animal laws and the Buddiesâ performance has been riddled with dissension, as Buddy allies attacked the panelâs chairwoman, including legal threats.
The Buddies got a three-year contract in the final moments of the old county Board of Commissionersâ existence on 11/30/12, after the âThree Amigosâ political majority of the commissioners approved the award and suddenly extended the duration– despite the fact that the published ârequest for proposalâ only specified an 18-month contract for animal control services. At the time, the Buddy group had no shelter, no vehicles, no experience supervising a public animal control service and no employees.
But the county gave the group $10,000 in start-up cash and purchased two pickup trucks (at a cost of over $65,000) plus special âcapsâ for the trucks, while also paying the Buddies $60,000 a month. The group is now renting kennels owned by a former county Circuit Court Judge and his wife, and until last month was also using county funds to pay rent on a vacant property that was banned from housing dogs under zoning law. Financial reports show the group has been consistently running a cash surplus over its expenses.
Now, more than nine months after the group began its contract in January, questions have been raised about its operations by multiple volunteers working without pay to help care for animals. And the chair of the oversight panel– who has queried financial reports filed by the group, suggested inclusion of cats in licensing rules and sought review of regulatory burdens imposed on kennel operators — has been attacked personally by Buddy supporters.
Indeed, a key associate of the Buddy group filed a complaint with the countyâs ethics commission accusing Madelyn Yelton, the oversight panel chairwoman, of âconflict of interestâ because she owns an animal boarding kennel, according to several informed sources who spoke on condition of anonymity. Yelton is a former financial executive, who holds a Masters of Business Administration degree.
At the time the panel members were selected, with one member from each of the five County Council Districts, appointees were considered on the basis of representation of various âstakeholdersâ in animal issues and the panel also includes a horse rescuer, a veterinarian, a cat rescuer, and the chair of the science faculty at Cecil College who also trains seeing-eye dogs.
Meanwhile, on 9/15/13, Mindy Carletti– a Perryville veterinarian intimately tied to the Buddiesâ operation and who personally re-wrote most of the countyâs animal ordinance over a nearly two year period after a broad-based task force submitted a vastly different proposal– complained on her Facebook wall that the Buddy group only had five volunteers.
But four volunteers with the Buddies attended a meeting at the county administration building last week on 10/10/13, with county Director of Administration Al Wein and Jason Allison, the county attorney, to complain about conditions, especially among cats, at the Buddyâs rented shelter space in Elkton.
The group, led by Tammy Pollard, a volunteer with the Buddy group since early June and a longtime client of Carlettiâs private veterinary practice, had requested a meeting with County Executive Tari Moore but she was out of town on vacation.
Pollard first went public with her concerns several days earlier, with 10/6/13 posts on her Facebook wall.
After the meeting, Pollard told Cecil Times that the volunteers presented pictures they had taken of what they said were ill cats and described what they said were unsanitary conditions, finding dead animals lying on the floor, many dogs crated in small portable wire cages, lack of medications, and other problems, including ringworm skin conditions that they said could be transmitted to human visitors.
Pollard also said she had purchased at her own expense food, bedding and other items for the animals because when she went to the facility on weekends bowls were empty and no food was available. She said cats were given cardboard boxes to lie in and as many as 30 dogs were kept in small wire crates in an upstairs area, without the outdoor access of larger, fixed kennels occupied by other dogs on the ground floor.
Wein told Cecil Times that before the meeting with the volunteersâand several days after Pollard posted her concerns and pictures of animals online– he and county emergency services director Richard Brooks and county planning director Eric Sennstrom went to inspect the facilities that the Buddies rent at Rainwood Kennels in Elkton.
He said it appeared to be clean, although smelly, and that it was very crowded with animals. He confirmed that dogs were being held in wire crates in an upstairs area.
Asked if the officials had brought a veterinarian along on their visit, he said no. County Councilor Alan McCarthy is a veterinarian. McCarthy said he was not told in advance about their visit and was not asked to accompany them, but would have joined them if asked.
Wein said he would meet with Buddy leaders soon to discuss the issues raised in the meeting with the volunteers and âoperational concerns.â
Pollard, who works as a solutions analyst managing databases for hospitals, said she tried to work through âchannelsâ by first raising her concerns in a 9/23/13 email to Crystal Litteral, the co-director of the Buddy shelter operation, and asking for a meeting to discuss them. Litteral is the only legally responsible party who signed the contract with the county and was listed in federal IRS records as the lone officer of the organization.
Pollard said Litteral did not respond but she was summoned to a 9/24/13 meeting with Carletti and her longtime employee, Jenn Callahan, who is now titled as the co-director of the animal control/shelter group.
Pollard said her concerns were not fully addressed, and she was told that âcats die,â yet she continued to volunteer to try to help the animals. But she said that she saw at least a dozen dead cats in a two week period, including some who had entered the shelter in seeming good health, and finally decided she had had enough.
On her Facebook wall, Pollard posted 10/6/13 that: âTaxpayers of Cecil County need to be made aware of the gross misappropriation of their tax dollars to an organization made up of friends who lack professionalism, processes or the ability to operate a no-kill shelter.â
In other postings, Pollard complained about the conditions of cats kept in an âisolationâ room that she described as a dark âcloset.â She was concerned about âOlivia,â a cat who she said came into the facility appearing healthy but quickly showed signs of a ringworm skin condition, respiratory infection and an infected eye. âI was told they were out of meds (oops),â she wrote.
Carletti had a quick response, threatening Pollard within a few hours on her own Facebook wall: âBe careful why [sic] you say. I have a lot of friends and a really good lawyer,â Carletti posted. âI will slap you with a lawsuit faster than you can blink,â she warned.
Indeed, while Pollard and the other volunteers were meeting with county officials to express their concerns, a lawyer retained by the Buddy group produced a letter threatening Pollard with legal action. Pollard said she was warned at her meeting with county officials that she should âretain legal counselâ and didnât understand why.
But shortly thereafter she received a âcease and desistâ letter dated 10/10/13 from Elkton lawyer James A. Dellmyer, of the William F. Riddle law firm. He said he had been retained by A Buddy for Life, Inc. to challenge âdefamatory statementsâ about the Buddies and warned Pollard that âAsserting that there exists abuse, negligent and false representations by A Buddy for Life is defamatory.â
âIt is apparent from your conduct that you intend to cause damage to A Buddy for Lifeâs business relationships and reputation in the community,â the lawyer wrote. And he said the Buddies had retained him to pursue legal action against Pollard, unless she would âcease and desistâ and not âpersist in this course of conductâ commenting about the group. The lawyer also cited various laws and suggested Pollard could go to jail.
Before the Buddies got their lucrative contract with the county government, the group had just a few thousand dollars in its bank account. It was unclear how the legal fees were being paid to threaten critics. (The Riddle law firm has represented Carletti in other litigation to obtain custody of a child, in conjunction with her live-in associate Heather Buckley. Buckley is employed as a paid animal control officer of the Buddy group despite no previous experience in the animal control field.) Cecil Times has phoned Dellmyer and will update this report upon his response.
The legal threats against Pollard, the volunteer, raise questions about citizensâ rights to redress their government on matters of public, and taxpayer, interest as well as provisions of state law on âSLAPPâ actionsâor âstrategic litigation against public participationââwhich is defined as legal threats designed to silence citizens from speaking out on public issues. State law takes a dim view of SLAPP legal actions and specifies various remedies for persons against whom such tactics are employed.
Pollard said she was âshockedâ and âsaddenedâ about the legal threats, and that her only interest was the well-being of the animals, which had led her, and her teenaged daughter, to spend many hours each weekend cleaning cat areas, feeding and caring for animals as unpaid volunteers. She said she did not have the money to hire a lawyer to fight any legal attack on her by the Buddies for voicing concerns to the county officials in charge of the taxpayer-financed contract. And she didnât even mention people by name, she said, until she was personally attacked and threatened by online commenters.
Subsequently, Carletti has posted her own photos on Facebook and stated that the cats in question are all in good health.
Ultimately, the responsibility for the Buddies contract rests with County Executive Tari Moore, who has the power under the contract to terminate it for any reason. Moore had private meetings several months ago with Carletti and Buddies officials, after which Carletti expressed confidence that Moore was firmly on the groupâs side.
In comments posted 8/1/13 under her own Facebook account, in reponse to Carletti, Moore indicated she would not alter the three-year county contract with the Buddies, regardless of County Council actions to revise the underlying county animal law. Moore said that âthe fact is that Buddies For Life has a three-year contract with the county. Even if the County Council changed the [animal control] ordinance during that time, it would not impact the existing contract (as County Executive I am responsible for all contract execution.)â
And Carletti commented 8/7/13 about a private meeting she and Callahan had with Moore, claiming that Moore said she would not support inclusion of cats in county animal law. âTari is your friend,â Carletti told her supporters. âIf you voted for her, Good Job!â Carletti had earlier promoted an email campaign among her supporters to urge Moore to side with the group on the issue.
In fact, the county contract with the Buddies requires them to enforce the countyâs animal law. The County Council has the power under the county Charter to revise or amend county lawsâsubject to a possible veto by Moore.
Meanwhile, two members of the oversight panel appointed with the endorsement of Councilors Diana Broomell (R-4) and Michael Dunn (R-3), the remaining members of the old Amigos faction, have attacked the panelâs chair, Yelton, at public meetings of the panel in recent months.
Laura Hudson (Dunnâs choice), whose family operates a horse rescue that got $12,000 from the county government last year, read from a written text at the 9/17/13 oversight panel meeting to claim that Yeltonâs criticism of the then-pending animal control ordinance in comments on a Cecil Times article in 2012– before the oversight panel was even created –showed she was biased and âit seems you have a personal agenda.â
Ricky Lewis II (Broomellâs choice), operator of a cat rescue who was cited for several violations of county animal laws in the past, claimed at the same session that any changes in kennel rules âdoesnât look goodâ because âyou gain, as the chairperson.â
Among the kennel rules he defended was the inclusion of a mandate that only a Maryland veterinarian could treat animals housed at a local kennel. âThey wanted to keep the money local,â he said of the rationale for that rule. Lewis was formerly associated with Carletti in operations of another cat rescue group.
(Their comments also parallel an attack on the panel chairwoman by Carletti, posted 8/31/13 on Facebook, complaining that the chairwoman had a âconflictâ as a boarding kennel operator, and claimed she was focused on âstupid s***â and âher personal agenda was shining through.â)
Yelton responded calmly at that September meeting that, âEveryone around this table has a vested interest or we wouldnât be sitting around this tableâ and each member brings a âunique perspectiveâ to the issues.
In her initial suggestion that cats be included in licensing laws, the chairwoman was referencing policies in effect in other counties in the state. State law requires that all âownedâ cats have proof of rabies shots as a public health and safety measure, but without licensingâeven for a token fee of a dollar or twoâthere is no way to promote compliance.
Since Carletti stirred up opposition to cat licensing, the oversight panel has focused instead on several regulatory issues, and complex forms that the Buddies created without any county oversight or hearings, for mandates on commercial kennel operators.
Lewis supported the provisions at a September meeting, saying that the mandates were intended to âmake it dangerousâ for âpuppy millsâ to locate in Cecil County.
Among the most controversial points are mandates that only a Maryland vet can be used for medical care of animals, dogs must have a mandatory two hours per day âexerciseâ regimen, and that the animals must be examined by a veterinarian every six months.