By David Carrigg-Staff writer
Once a year, for five years, Douglas Hooper showed up at Dr. Michael Dear's Richmond veterinary clinic to negotiate a new pay and benefits package.
It made sense to Hooper, then executive director of the Vancouver regional branch of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, to meet the branch president privately to make his pitch for a pay hike. That's how it had been done at the regional branch for the past 30 years.
Those meetings went well for Hooper-with Dr. Dear's sole signature, the executive director's annual pay package soared from $77,000 in 1996 to $204,000 this year. The executive director of the Victoria branch, the most powerful in the province, earned a paltry $75,000 a year by comparison.
Then something happened. In January, the B.C. SPCA's provincial office asked for information on Hooper's salary package for a society-wide compensation review. The Vancouver regional branch refused. After further investigation, the provincial office took control of the branch, suspended Hooper and paid a consultant to investigate Hooper's salary negotiations as well as management of the branch's 16 animal control contracts. Around the same time, Hooper's right-hand man, field operations manager Brian Nelson, resigned. Human resources manager Bill Taylor, who was also suspended with pay, went on long-term sick leave after major heart surgery.
In August, Hooper was sacked. The branch's board of directors was stripped of its powers and head office made it clear it wanted to control all of B.C.'s 32 currently autonomous SPCA branches. Hooper insists his firing was part of a deliberate strategy to gain control of the branches.
"They wanted an issue to help them with their plan to get all money flowing directly to provincial office, and the one that worked for them was my compensation and benefits package," says Hooper, who is still bitter about his dismissal and remains unemployed.
Nonetheless, insiders say the restructuring plan will get the go-ahead when delegates from all B.C. SPCA branches except Vancouver's- now controlled by the provincial office-vote on it Nov. 3.
Since the scandal surrounding Hooper's firing this summer, things have quieted down. For the past two months, the B.C. SPCA has held public consultations to get feedback on the society's image and future, while Dr. Dear has apologized for Hooper's "inappropriate remuneration."
But the Vancouver branch still faces a rocky future. Volunteers have drifted away, and some of the branch's 110 unionized staff are facing layoffs as administrative services are streamlined and municipalities like the City of Coquitlam and District of North Vancouver abandon their long-standing animal control contracts.
An internal debate has long raged about whether the 103-year-old organization should be in the animal control business, which can involve large numbers of euthanizations. But the revenue loss from cancelled pound services could be significant-although half the B.C. SPCA's branches have animal control contracts with municipalities, Vancouver's has by far the most-16, based in 10 pounds and worth about $2.5 million a year.
Just to add to the branch's list of miseries, Hooper is shaping up for a wrongful dismissal suit that could cost the non-profit organization hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Barney the blind cocker spaniel, who was found abandoned five years ago on a Surrey golf course, sits on the kitchen floor of an East Vancouver home that's serving as an unauthorized dog and cat shelter. He's one of hundreds of beasts that animal rights advocates throughout the Lower Mainland take in every year, knowing their chances of survival in a crowded SPCA pound are slim-the old, the sick and the noisy are labeled unfit for adoption and quickly euthanized.
The SPCA's Vancouver branch won most of its animal control contracts in the early 1960s, when the society thought it could deal with stray cats and dogs more humanely than municipalities, and raise its profile at the same time. But animal activist Judy Stone sees Barney and the three other dogs and 17 cats at the shelter as prime examples of why the SPCA should get out of the pound business. "A pound legally must collect loose dogs, impound them, and dispose of them somehow. The only way to dispose of dogs that are not returned to the owner or sold to a new owner is to kill them," says Stone, gently petting Daphne, an aged beagle rescued 13 years ago after being chained and beaten. "There is not endless space and money to keep the dogs forever that no one wants. It's not rocket science. A lot of animals that could be saved aren't being saved and that directly contradicts the SPCA's animal welfare mission."
The SPCA Vancouver branch knows all about Stone's hard-line opinions of the way SPCA pounds are operated. In January, Stone was threatened by the Vancouver branch for publishing allegedly defamatory comments on a web site promoting Animal Advocates, a loose affiliation of animal rescue and rehabilitation groups.
That threat was withdrawn when the provincial office took over the Vancouver regional branch in August, and Stone now feels vindicated by the dramatic turn of events at the branch and the cancellation of SPCA pound contracts at the City of Coquitlam and District of North Vancouver. "Other people are starting to notice what we've been saying all along about the operation of Vancouver branch," said Stone, who includes Don Sigston, manager of regulatory services at the District of North Vancouver, as one of the converted.
Sigston was instrumental in convincing the district to abandon its SPCA animal control contract, in place since 1961. The district was paying the Vancouver regional branch about $200,000 a year to enforce its animal bylaws as well as shelter, adopt out or destroy unwanted animals.
The SPCA's North Vancouver pound, based in a district building, was also used to care for animals through a separate contract between the SPCA and the City of North Vancouver. The city has decided to keep its contract with the unionized SPCA operation, while the district will use its own employees and volunteers to manage stray and unwanted animals.
"The SPCA transfer animals around their shelters according to space. We looked at the log and found at times there would be only three animals in our shelter that actually came from the district, yet we were paying for two thirds of the operation," said Sigston, adding the district only recently found out the Vancouver branch was renting out the district-owned caretaker's residence to Jeff Lawson, superintendent of the North Vancouver pound and president of Local 1622 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, representing Vancouver SPCA employees.
"What we plan to do is not animal control. We are calling it animal welfare," said Sigston, who wants to work with groups like Animal Advocates to find homes for tough-to-handle animals. "It will be a no-kill shelter, where we don't offer veterinary euthanasia services."
The district shelter hopes to reduce the number of unwanted animals through a proposed bylaw making spaying and neutering mandatory and imposing controls on breeders and pet shops. When it takes over the shelter from the SPCA, it also plans to employ an animal behaviour expert to help rehabilitate difficult dogs. Animals in the shelter will be caged as little as possible and allowed to roam and socialize, as they are at the San Francisco SPCA shelter.
The City of Coquitlam also plans to open its own shelter when its contract with the Vancouver regional branch expires at year's end. That shelter will be overseen by Barb Fellnermayr, former head of the City of Vancouver's shelter and long-time critic of the B.C. SPCA. In a Courier article in April 2000, Fellnermayr claimed the Vancouver branch's animal hospital was making money through over-diagnosis and favouring more expensive procedures.
Coquitlam, which was paying the Vancouver regional branch about $200,000 a year for its pound service, abandoned its contract because of
concerns over service standards, including slow response to outside complaints and alleged lack of co-operation between senior SPCA staff and city staff.
The City of Richmond is now also reviewing its contract with SPCA, which is up at year's end.
A troubled look crosses Doug Brimacombe's face when he's asked about the Vancouver branch's 10-year collective agreement with its workers. Brimacombe, chief executive of the society's provincial office since 1999, has negotiated several workplace contracts over his 25-year public administration career and has never heard of a 10-year contract.
"Five years is a long time in British Columbia," said Brimacombe, sitting in his third floor office in a downtown heritage building. "This contract is a convoluted piece of work."
Brimacombe is particularly worried about a clause that forces the branch to bid on any animal control contracts that come up. The contract was signed by Hooper and field operations director Brian Nelson, who was employed in 1996 on the condition his animal control business not bid on the same municipal contracts as the Vancouver regional branch.
Hooper said the animal control clause was designed to protect jobs and simply followed a motion by a former board of directors that the branch aggressively pursue animal control contracts. "It was board direction to staff and we simply included it in the contract," he said.
Brimacombe is worried that in a climate of change-with public opinion turning against the idea of the SPCA being involved in animal control-being locked into an agreement that may contradict new SPCA policy could prove disastrous. In fact, the union has already threatened to file a grievance if the Vancouver branch stops pursuing animal control contracts as the collective agreement dictates.
As a result, the provincial office has hired an outside consultant to look at the contract, yet another cost in the bid to win control of its branches. Consultant costs are adding up-the branch paid $30,000 for its compensation review and another $30,000 for the BDO Dunwoody report that gave the provincial office enough ammunition to justify-it believes-Hooper's dismissal.
More expenses is the last thing the branch needs as it faces the possibility it may have to pay the fired executive director the two years salary and benefits he was guaranteed in his contract if dismissed without cause-about $406,000.
Hooper wants that money, plus punitive damages for "capricious, malicious and heavy-handed" dismissal, according to a writ filed in B.C. Supreme Court. The provincial office has filed a statement of defense and wants Hooper to repay an unspecified amount of money to compensate for what it believes was Hooper's five years of overpayment.
Brimacombe, who earns $132,000 a year, said Hooper initially refused to give the provincial office details of his compensation package for the society's compensation review. "We tried to get Vancouver to participate, but they wouldn't. That carried on until May, when we got the information and perceived a problem. That's when BDO Dunwoody came in."
The 60-page BDO Dunwoody report cleared Hooper of financial wrongdoing, but according to the provincial office, there was sufficient justification to dismiss Hooper because the method he used to renew his contract "breached the duties which he owed to his employer as the executive director of a non-profit society."
Dr. Dear, a devout Jehovah Witness, resigned as board president in the spring of 2000, after agreeing to Hooper's last contract, and in August publicly apologized through a letter to The Vancouver Sun. Hooper's last pay hike, in January this year, was due to an automatic cost-of-living increase negotiated into his contract. "Sometimes when one prays, 'Thy will be done', one gets crushed," Dr Dear wrote. "One's intentions might have been good, but one's comprehension was not. As acting president at the time Doug Hooper, the former executive director of the SPCA's Vancouver regional branch received his salary increases, I have to accept responsibility for the inappropriate remuneration."
Hooper maintains Dr. Dear had the right to sign off on his compensation package. "When he was challenged by provincial office he felt bad. But there's no policy to say he didn't have the right to meet privately or enter into discussions." He added he did not hand over details of his compensation package to the provincial office because his loyalty was with his own board of directors, which has now been suspended. "We said 'Thanks but no thanks' and they started getting angry."
Brimacombe said if the B.C. SPCA loses the case, it will be covered by insurance, while if Hooper loses he will have to pay legal costs for both parties, plus any amount he was deemed to have been overcompensated.
But Hooper said with a two-week trial looming, "It's going to be extremely expensive on both sides."
This Saturday, 92 B.C. SPCA delegates will fly or drive to Vancouver to vote on the provincial office's centralization plan. The provincial organization will foot the bill for travel and accommodation, as it does three times a year for provincial meetings.
"Under the current regime that's the price of doing business," said Brimacombe. "It's obvious the management structure is cumbersome."
Brimacombe has traveled the province over the past two months trying to convince the branches to support the centralization plan. He reckons he's got the support of 26 branches and will likely win 75 per cent approval for the plan, 10 per cent more than is needed.
If provincial office doesn't win control of the branches, Brimacombe said it may approach the provincial government to step in, since the B.C. SPCA is governed by the provincial Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. All the infighting and expenses seem like a whole lot of dog-doo to Stone, as she co-ordinates the rescue of another dog the B.C. SPCA won't attend to. This one is a golden retriever, dehydrated, unexercised and locked out on the balcony of a Vancouver apartment. A neighbour has tipped her off, after getting nowhere with the SPCA, and Stone has negotiated with the owners to take the dog, get it to a vet and find it a home-all at Animal Advocates' expense.
As Stone rises from the kitchen table, the dogs wag their tails and look up longingly at her.
"I get so angry when I see the SPCA, supposedly there for the welfare of animals, spend its time trying to make money out of pound contracts. They do nothing to control the supply of problem dogs and right now, animal welfare seems to be the last thing on their minds," said Stone, who supports the provincial office's plans to control its branches. "They've got a gun to their head and they promise there is change coming. But we've had promises made before. I won't be convinced until we see it on the ground."