Cistaro: Unrest not the majority

LIHUE — Penny Cistaro said Wednesday the people trying to oust her from Kauai Humane Society’s top job don’t represent the majority of her staff.

“It’s 12 people out of 36,” said Cistaro, KHS’s executive director.

Cistaro’s reaction comes a day after some KHS staff members went public with concerns about her leadership, claiming she hires unqualified friends to fill positions, creates a hostile work environment and is too quick to euthanize animals.

“The accusations of poor animal care is an insult to the staff and to me,” she said. “It’s one thing to have disgruntled employees take it to the board, but to take it to the public when we depend on the community so closely to support what we do — it’s the animals that end up struggling for that. For some of us, this is our life’s work and it’s painful.”

A petition calling for Cistaro’s dismissal signed by a dozen KHS employees was delivered to the Board of Directors Wednesday following a meeting during which board members discussed with the staff the results of a recent employee satisfaction survey.

The board, which unanimously supports Cistaro’s leadership, has not yet decided how it will respond to the petition, longtime board member Elizabeth Freitas said.

Mana Brown, KHS’s field service manager who delivered the petition to the board, said he is stunned the board isn’t taking the employee’s concerns more seriously.

“In one word, it’s madness,” he said. “We have all this documentation and a piece of paper with 12 signatures of employees who currently work there asking them to remove Penny. All of that, and they are still 100 percent behind her. There is no reason why they should support and champion her when all this evidence has been brought to surface. In all honesty, I don’t know why they would feel like everything is hunky dory.”

The petition and the results of a recent employee satisfaction survey, however, tell starkly different stories.

While the petition indicates that a sizeable number of employees are unhappy with the animal shelter’s leadership, just one employee marked on the survey that they “strongly disagree” with the statement that they are satisfied with their job overall, according to Freitas. Two people indicated that they somewhat disagree with the statement and three people marked that they are neutral. Six people said they somewhat agree with the statement. But the majority — 20 employees — marked that they strongly agree that they are satisfied with their job, all things considered.

“There are some employees who don’t like my management style, my leadership,” said Cistaro, who took the job a little over two years ago. “And there are employees who are happy and they outweigh the small number that isn’t.”

The anonymous survey was distributed to employees earlier this month after a 70-page binder full of documentation outlining employee complaints — dirty kennels, mismanagement, unneccessary euthanasias — was presented to the board at the end of April.

The documents claim the shelter is euthanizing more animals than the 50 percent reported by KHS and that the numbers of animals coming to the shelter is down because people don’t want to surrender their pets for fear they will be put down.

Around the same time that employees started sharing their complaints with board members, donors who caught wind of their unhappiness with how the shelter is being run got involved.

Among them are movie star Pierce Brosnan and his wife Keely. The North Shore couple, who have adopted two dogs and one cat from the shelter, said in a letter to the board that they are deeply concerned about the direction KHS has taken under Cistaro’s leadership.

“In spite of increased funding and the mobile spay and neuter van, euthanasia rates have dramatically increased,” the Brosnans wrote in April. “Additionally, there seems to be a decrease in adoptions and ‘live release rates.’ Our island community is small and word travels fast. As such it is important for the board to recognize that Kauai is losing faith in our local humane society.”

Board president Emily Larocque said criticisms of the shelter’s euthanasia rates and adoption numbers are rooted in misinformation.

She said the board has reviewed the numbers and found that euthanasias are down 7 percent, and from 2014 to 2015 through April they were down 14 percent.

Freitas also backed KHS’s data.

“We’re taking our numbers straight out of PetPoint, which is our database, so it’s not possibe to skew the numbers,” she said.

It’s not the first time there has been unrest with KHS leadership.

KHS has a history of personnel disputes that have spilled out into the public. Becky Rhoades suddenly stepped down from the executive director position five years ago amid a legal battle. In 2000, nearly the entire staff resigned and closed the animal shelter in protest of the board’s decision to oust then-executive director Sherry Hoe.

Hoe was removed by the board after inaccurate statistics about adoptions, services, education, complaints and the number of animals taken in were presented to the Kauai County Council.

“We have had employee concerns about prior leadership that were dealt with,” said Freitas, who has been a board member since 2001. “Because they are personnel issues I can’t give details because people have a right to their privacy there, but it has happened in the past.

“The majority of the employees are doing an awesome job, but, are there some internal issues? Yes, there are, and they need to be dealt with so that we can all head in the right direction together.”

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Brittany Lyte, enviromental reporter, can be reached at 245-0441.

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