KANKAKEE — A Kankakee County Board committee on Tuesday approved a plan to move the county’s animal control agency to the sheriff’s office and close the shelter.
For months, board Chairman Andy Wheeler, R-Kankakee, told committee members he has spoken privately with individual board members about the proposed changes. He said the goal was to focus county resources on enforcement of animal welfare laws, rather than housing and adopting out animals. Other counties follow this model, he said.
At Tuesday’s executive committee meeting, Wheeler told members the county kept the plan under wraps out of respect for shelter employees, some of whom will be laid off.
Wheeler informed animal control’s director, Julie Boudreau, on Friday and met with employees about the plan Monday afternoon.
The county board is expected to vote on the changes Sept. 10.
Wheeler lamented the “misinformation” spreading about the plan for animal control. He said many are saying the county was planning to shut down animal control. If anything, he said, the board wants to improve enforcement to protect animals.
“I don’t even eat animals,” he said. “I’m the fattest vegetarian you’ll ever meet. Everything we’re doing right now is trying to protect animals.”
Wheeler also said he has been worried about the liability of adopting out animals — for instance, a dog that mauls its new owner. The shelter is set to close mid-year 2020 at the earliest, he said.
He said he hoped the county eventually would enter agreements that let animal control extend enforcement into municipalities.
Board member Tinker Parker, R-St. Anne, chairwoman of the county’s Animal Welfare Advisory Committee, said she supported the proposal.
“I appreciate so much the clarification you gave us today,” Parker told Wheeler. “I had numerous phone calls throughout the night. It was all misunderstood. They are claiming the county is shutting down animal control. I quit answering the phone. Animal people are very passionate.”
Wheeler said he had spoken with at least 15 board members about the proposed changes and that everyone was supportive.
Now that the news is out, he said he is calling shelters about their abilities to house animals. He called one beforehand in case the news about the plan was not well-received and everyone quit, requiring the help of another shelter.
“It’s my job to think like that,” he said.
As part of the change, animal control officers are set to keep their jobs. When the shelter closes, though, kennel technicians and clerical staffers will be laid off, officials said.
Management is slated to shift to the sheriff’s office Dec. 1. The day before will be Boudreau’s last on the job.
During a discussion at the committee meeting, board member Elisabeth Dunbar, D-Kankakee, said she was on the county’s community services and criminal justice committees, both of which have oversight of the agencies involved. She said she had never heard about plan until the agenda for the executive committee was released on Friday.
She asked Wheeler whether he was selective on who he told. He said he was.
He said he wanted to be careful with the information, so animal control employees weren’t “thrown under the bus.” He wanted them to hear about the plan from him, not other sources.
In a later interview, Dunbar she had yet to decide whether she would vote for transferring management of the shelter. But she questioned the process.
“It’s not (Wheeler’s) decision. It’s a county board decision,” she said.
Dunbar said Wheeler stated he did not want to catch employees off guard, but she said the chairman did exactly that by not taking his proposal through the relevant committees so that everyone could provide input.
Dunbar also objected to Wheeler telling Boudreau her position was being eliminated.
“That’s not his role as county board chairman,” Dunbar said. “He cannot dissolve an entire county department and dismiss an administrator who is legislatively protected.”
In response, Wheeler said in an email, “Obviously, the relevant committees are being consulted as evidenced by today’s unanimous vote to protect animals and go after abusers. I stand by the right of an impacted employee to hear relevant information about a potential change before the media reports on it. I don’t know of any employee who would feel differently. I respect their work and service to the county, and as human beings.”