County gag on volunteers will be voided
April 14, 2008
By DANIEL BLACKBURN
A newly-issued official policy prohibiting public comment by volunteers at the county animal shelter is being revised.
San Luis Obispo County supervisors Bruce Gibson and Katcho Achadjian told UncoveredSLO.com Monday that changes are being made in Animal Services Division’s (ASD) “Volunteer Policy and Procedure Manual.” No details of proposed modifications to the document are yet available.
A controversial section in the manual prohibits “all public statements, whether verbal or written, inside the shelter or outside, which criticize, ridicule, or otherwise disparage the Division, its employees, volunteers, or policies.” (See previous UncoveredSLO.com story.)
As presently written, volunteers will be fired for disregarding rules, according to the manual, and must sign an agreement promising to abide. Sheriff Patrick Hedges, whose responsibilities include overseeing the county animal shelter, would decide what constitutes prohibited language.
Wording of the speech prohibition and volunteers’ reaction to it created a flurry of communications between county staff and elected officials, according to several sources.
“It was the consensus that this was not the way,” said Achadjian, “so county staff is revisiting the matter.” He said the “consensus” was between Board members, animal shelter personnel, and other county employees.
Achadjian said he was bothered by language in the volunteer manual that appeared to forbid volunteers from expressing unease about shelter issues to elected officials.
“It was a matter of concern to me,” said Achadjian. “This wasn’t, I think, what they were trying to do. The volunteers and anyone else should be free to discuss issues with their supervisors at the shelter, or with us, the Board of Supervisors, or with the media. We need to make things so that volunteers know they are free to talk about issues.”
The shelter’s manager, Dr. Eric Anderson, told UncoveredSLO.com earlier this month that the volunteers’ 16-page manual “is the first step in a longer process of organizing and structuring the volunteer program.”
Animal shelter volunteer Kate Stulberg, former executive director of the San Luis Obispo County Arts Council, said changes in the speech prohibition were welcome.
“Anything that impedes or limits discussion in a public agency is bad policy,” she said. “This kind of thing only creates paranoia and distrust. We need a culture in the Animal Services Division that rewards volunteers.”
Troy Riggs, another shelter volunteer, said he’ll “be happy if they’re changing (the manual). It’s just intimidating. The way it’s written, volunteers can’t even talk to one another about the shelter.”