Department Head Stands By Animal Shelter Director Who Resigned

Nearly 100 supporters of Vanessa Cowie, Salina Animal Services director, who was placed on administrative leave Wednesday and could lose her job, demonstrated outside the City-County Building Monday and voiced their disapproval before and during the Salina City Commission meeting.

Many gathered in front of the City-County building as early as 3:20 p.m., forty minutes before the meeting, chanting Cowie’s name and holding signs with slogans such as, “I stand with Vanessa,” “She deserves to stay” and “Animals don’t have a voice, so you’ll hear mine.”


Many also spoke during the public forum session of the city commission meeting.

Mike Schrage, interim city manager, who will determine Cowie’s fate, said last week that not much could be discussed because her suspension was a personnel matter.

Schrage said Monday that he understands how “the process can be very frustrating to the general public.”

“There are privacy and concerns that have to be taken into account. The process is department heads are delegated with certain authority and at certain levels of discipline. Before that action can be taken, it has to be referred to the city manager for review and approval,” he said.

Schrage, who said he has had plenty of interactions with Cowie and respects her, said he hadn't started the review.

“Fully recognizing what’s before me, what’s expected is I’m going to be tasked with making a decision that balances all of the factors, things heard here tonight and otherwise, and make a decision that’s in the best interest of the organization which can only be in the best interest of the community,” he said.



Senator backs Cowie

Schrage promised to make a “fair and objective decision.”

Mayor Karl Ryan expressed his confidence in Schrage’s ability to be objective.

During the meeting, Kansas Sen. Randall Hardy, R-Salina, expressed his confidence in Cowie, saying he had worked with her when he was a city commissioner, as a state legislator and as a private citizen.

Hardy said he doesn't think the animal shelter should be under the umbrella of the Salina Parks and Recreation Department, but rather the city’s Community and Development Services department.

In the parks department, he said, "the shelter is put into a position it has to compete with soccer fields and ball diamonds when it is really there to provide a service to the community. I do not think that we should be in a position to decide whether we have first-rate soccer fields or a fully funded animal shelter. I think we can have both.”

Hardy said he attended a luncheon in Topeka hosted by the Kansas Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

“When I arrived, I found out that Miss Cowie was providing the program for the legislators. Miss Cowie was chosen for the presentation because her shelter is considered by the state society to be a model program that includes best practices that could be considered by shelters all over the state,” he said. “I was sitting there thinking how proud I was to be associated with a city with an animal shelter that has a statewide reputation of excellence.”


Animal cruelty case

Jon Blanchard, former Salina mayor, brought up an animal cruelty case that is currently being adjudicated.

On April 18, deputies with the Saline County Sheriff’s Office seized 189 animals that allegedly had been neglected and starved and arrested Beverly Fullen, 66, and Matthew Fullen, 40, on charges that included 165 misdemeanor counts and four felony counts of cruelty to animals.

In a motion to dismiss heard in July, the Fullens cited “outrageous government conduct” by the Saline County Sheriff’s Office, as well as “inaccurate and inflammatory” remarks made about the Fullens by Salina City Commissioner Melissa Rose Hodges on her official Facebook page.

Cowie and Hodges have been subpoenaed to testify when the hearing on the motion to dismiss resumes this morning in Saline County District Court.

In late June, former City Manager Jason Gage asked for and was granted permission — retroactively — to exceed his spending authority to pay about $125,000 in boarding fees for the care of the animals, which had been taken to an alternate location after being seized.

Gage, who had spending authority for expenses of up to $20,000, told commissioners at the time that he wasn't aware when monthly bills started coming in for the boarding that they were for the same expense.

Commissioners gave Gage authority to use private donations to pay the bills from a fund Salina Animal Services has set up through the city to which individuals contribute for such emergencies.

The animals were later moved back to their original home, with caretakers arranged by the court.

Blanchard suggested that commissioners ask for an "independent, outside audit" of the animal cruelty case to find out "who knew what, when they knew it and when payments were authorized and when you guys went into executive session what was discussed there for 85 minutes.”

“The community needs to have confidence in what you guys are doing,” he said. “There is very little confidence right now. We have confidence in Vanessa Cowie and we’d like to have confidence in the interim city manager and we’d like to have confidence in you (city commission).”

Hodges made the motion to hire an independent auditor, but the motion died without a second.


Managers questioned

Salinan David Norlin questioned the people who are seeking Cowie’s termination.

“(W)hat struck me was regardless of the infraction, the penalties sought to be exacted in this case seem extremely out of bounds here, especially given the testimony we have here,” Norlin said. “I wonder then about the managers who were prepared to rain down this kind of hellfire and bridge storm."

Norlin said it appears there isn't a good atmosphere in the parks department.

“I have also been in situations where the department head brought in somebody who was very close to him in a previous situation, who is working as his direct underling and that appears to be the case here,” he said. “... I think that there is an atmosphere that is fostered where if a close buddy comes in, there’s not going to be as much questioning the department about what decisions are being made.”

Chris Cotten, Salina Parks and Recreation director, and Scott Garrie, his deputy director, worked closely together while both worked for the parks and recreation department in Joplin, Mo.


Dedicated worker

Maggie Gillam, a board member for the Friends of the Salina Animal Shelter, spoke about Cowie’s behind-the-scenes endeavors.

Gillam said Cowie once traveled 17 hours to make sure a pet had a good home. She also has taken pet food to people in need, has driven people to the veterinarian during her time off, has met people at the shelter after hours to pick up dogs and on Christmas Day “was at the shelter to be on call, so her employees could be at home with their families.”

“Vanessa (Cowie) does not clock in at 9 a.m. and she does not clock out at 5 p.m. She is not someone who is just there for a paycheck,” Gillam said. “She has literally poured her blood, sweat and tears into managing the animal shelter. She loves her job, she loves animals and she loves helping people in the community.

"It’s all the little things she does behind the scenes that not only make her a good manager, but also a good leader.”


Helping others

Shaley Johnson, who works with the Clay County Animal Rescue and Education Center, said Cowie possesses “rare traits.”

“She’s collected hundreds of thousands of grant dollars and I’m here to tell you that is so hard to do,” she said. “Our shelter’s board of directors in Clay Center has worked constantly to apply for those grants but has yet to be selected for the same grants ... but Vanessa is selected time and time again.”

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