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By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
Volunteers at Broward’s troubled Animal Care and Adoption Division (ACAD) are required to sign a county-approved agreement that seeks to muzzle them from posting “any criticism or disparaging comments” about the agency or its leaders on social media.
The agreement’s restrictive language was added after several controversial dismissals of volunteers who alleged mismanagement and abuse of shelter animals, including the 2019 firing of a trio of volunteers who posted photos and videos of dogs allegedly being mistreated at Broward’s animal shelter, built in 2017 at a cost of $16.5 million.
Such disclosures touched off a series of county audits in recent years that identified a host of problems at the division. The most recent audit, more than 200 pages long with more than 130 recommended fixes, was released in late December.
Miami First Amendment attorney Thomas Julin reviewed the two-page agreement and observed, “It reads like a contract between the CIA and a new agent.”
“This causes me to wonder why the county feels this is necessary. Suggests the county has something it wants to hide about the program,” said Julin, who has represented Florida Bulldog in Freedom of Information litigation. “The vagueness of these requirements probably makes them unenforceable and if the county were to discharge a volunteer for violation of the agreement, the county could face a suit that the action was retaliatory against the exercise of speech rights.”
Oakland, CA attorney Nathan Winograd, who runs the nonprofit No Kill Law & Advocacy Center, called the new policy an “illegal” infringement of “the constitutional rights of volunteers.”
Emily Wood, hired as director of Broward’s animal care division in January, said the county attorney’s office changed the volunteer agreement as a result of the auditor’s findings. A comparison to a previous version shows that three items were added, committing volunteers to:
- “Not engage in disparaging conversation at ACAD.
- “If posting ACAD related information on social media, post only management-approved animals for the purposes of helping them get adopted or fostered; not post any information on animals that have not been approved for adoption, or rescue without written permission from the ACAD Director; and not post any criticism or disparaging comments of ACAD or the shelter staff.
- “Acknowledge and accept that not every animal will be saved and to be respectful to the employees who must make the difficult decisions on euthanasia.”
Wood said the items are needed in the agreement because the shelter operates “with an open door policy” and addresses concerns that “feed into a culture of trust and finding solutions.”
“We want volunteers, we need volunteers, and we are not looking for reasons to terminate. Rather, we are outlining our expectations,” she said. “What would be concerning to us is that rather than addressing a problem, rather than looking for a solution, someone would be complaining about a problem in a broad public forum.
A volunteer sues
“It speaks to the culture we want. Don’t post on Facebook about a problem because you could talk to me face to face to fix it,” Wood said. “If that were to happen, and in my short tenure that has not happened, it would be a conversation rather than a termination. I’d certainly want to know what’s at the bottom of the frustration that led somebody to do that.”
But at least one former volunteer, Wendy Schugar-Martin of Hollywood, has sued the county in federal court, alleging her dismissal from Broward’s animal shelter on Jan. 15, 2019 was in “retaliation” for opinions about “mismanagement” and “inhumane conditions” at the animal shelter she posted on social media one day before.
Schugar-Martin’s complaint, filed in April 2021, seeks a jury trial for alleged violations of her rights under the First and 14th amendments to the Constitution. Her Exhibit A is a Dec. 21, 2018 email sent to all shelter volunteers expressing chagrin at “those bashing the very shelter you represent” on social media.
The email went on to note “you all signed a volunteer agreement that allows us the right to terminate your services with us if we feel that you are no longer aiding our mission. If this continues to happen, I will begin to look at this option because it is unnecessary and bullying will not be tolerated,” wrote then-division volunteer coordinator Carolina Segarra.
Schugar-Martin, who also contends she was later improperly bounced of the county’s Animal Care Advisory Committee, seeks unspecified damages, including punitive damages, and asks Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Judge Rodolfo A. Ruiz Jr. to enjoin the county from preventing her to serve as a volunteer at the animal shelter.
Broward County has denied that Schugar-Martin was fired to silence her public criticism of shelter management.