Board briefed on Multnomah County Animal Services Review, details progress

October 6, 2023

The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners on Sept. 26, was briefed on the completion of the Multnomah County Animal Services (MCAS) Review, centered on a strategic plan for improvements at Animal Services that shows which recommendations have been implemented so far and sets specific dates to complete the rest of the ongoing work.

Overall, 32 of 106 recommendations have been completed, ranging from expanding contracts with community veterinarians to provide spay/neuter services and vaccinations to changes in feeding, cleaning and pathway planning procedures, Animal Services leadership told the Board.

The remaining recommendations, including updating procedures around transfer, foster and volunteer programs and providing auditory enrichment to animals, are expected to be completed by the end of 2024. 

Chair Jessica Vega Pederson ordered an in-depth review of Animal Services in February 2023, weeks after taking office, to address years of longstanding structural and management challenges and rebuild Animal Services’ partnership with the community. The review incorporated findings from all previous audits and reports dating to 2016 and also solicited community feedback. 

“Thank you to the staff and the volunteers who engaged deeply in this process,” Chair Vega Pederson said. “This isn’t a beginning point or an endpoint. This is the point where we are able to have a picture of where we are going. We look forward to continuing work.” 

In April, the Board received its first official update on the review and learned of the changes that had been implemented since January, when overcrowding and other issues forced Animal Services’ shelter to halt intakes of non-dangerous stray dogs. And in June, the Board of Commissioners adopted a budget for the Fiscal Year 2024 that included the Chair’s proposed 10 new staff for Animal Services.

“I was grateful to this board for recognizing the importance of investing in animal care and the safety of our community,” said Chair Vega Pederson.

Phase Three, the review’s final stage, combines all findings from previous phases: a survey of all previous audits, reports and recommendations conducted over the past six years, the development of budgetary and staffing recommendations, and a summary of an environmental scan of shelter operations (Phase One), with feedback gathered from volunteers, current and former staff, partner agencies and members of the public (Phase Two).

Margi Bradway, director of the County’s Department of Community Services, presented the findings alongside Animal Services Director Erin Grahek and Project Manager Bud Garrison. 

Process Improvement Framework

Grahek said the 106 recommendations fell across 29 project areas. She also shared the guiding principles that Animal Services is using to build the ongoing process improvement framework, including: 

  • Transparency in all levels of decision making, reporting and communication
  • Accountability for decisions, actions and in day-to-day work
  • Staff and volunteer inclusion in improvement efforts and in decisions involving their work 
  • Community engagement
  • Data driven evidence based operations and policy management

“These principles will underscore our work going forward,” Grahek said. 

Animal Services plans to relaunch its Community Advisory Committee next spring as part of engaging with the community and rebuilding trust.

Along with the guiding principles, MCAS also grouped the 106 recommendations into a list of priorities. Multiple projects within each priority group will be rolling out simultaneously. The priorities, ranked by priority by leadership, are: 

  1. Safety and well-being of pets in our care
  2. Policy and procedure-standardization, accountability
  3. Volunteer management/hiring/onboarding; right sizing staff with identifiable methodology
  4. Culture/change management/transparency
  5. Facilities and plant improvements/plans
  6. Data integrity/quality analysis

Throughout the briefing, Animal Services highlighted the importance of data integrity and quality analysis. 

“Data and quality analysis will be used to guide all of our decision making with the goal of moving us from reactive to proactive,” said Grahek. 

Animal Services’  leadership will be responsible for providing regular updates on the project’s status, with a manager or project workgroup assigned to each identified element.

Staff and Volunteer Work to Address the Recommendations 

Grahek and Garrison shared some of the progress from the priority groups. 

As an example in the safety and well-being priority group, Animal Services integrated the Give a Dog a Bone Program, a recommendation from Dogs Play for Life, which represents varied enrichment for animals in the general shelter and in the security kennels.

The recommendation is now considered complete and is being monitored and assessed for success and impact. Other projects in that priority area, like improving a system for documentation of behavioral concerns, remain in progress. 

In the area of policy and procedure standardization, Garrison said there has been progress toward ensuring that information on all euthanized animals are recorded in both the drug logs and the animal records database. 

“We believe we have discovered the root causes of these issues and are manually balancing the records to ensure accuracy while we develop a system of a more automated data entry check,” said Garrison. 

Staffing and volunteer management projects have shown improvements and are still in progress. Of 10 new positions the Board of Commissioners approved in the Fiscal Year 2023-24 budget, seven have been hired. Grahek said two of the remaining positions are in the interview process, while one is in the recruitment stage.

“The review of the staffing models has resulted in reorganizing of staff assignments and our supervisory structure to better balance the workload and more effectively utilize the strength and dedication of our staff,” she said.

Animal Services staff will monitor the progress of the Strategic Plan by tracking performance measures related to outcomes, such as public safety, the experience of animals in the shelter, and culture change, to ensure and measure the success of work going forward. Metrics the agency intends to track include the number and type of calls received, the capacity of Field Services to respond to calls, live animal release rates, the rate of animals returned to owners, animals’ length of stay, volunteer hours, and employees’ retention, promotion and satisfaction. 

“As our programs mature and we introduce new procedures, we will be introducing new and additional metrics to guide and evaluate our work and demonstrate the success of our interventions,” said Grahek. 

Board remarks 

“We really do need to be continuing to look at the systems, practices and outcomes,” said Commissioner Sharon Meieran

Commissioner Meieran highlighted euthanasia, pathway planning, and the spay and neuter program as areas in which she would like to have further conversation. 

“I think nine months can seem like a long time for this work to happen, especially given the urgency that people were feeling back in January and December,” said Commissioner Susheela Jayapal

Commissioner Jayapal also raised a concern over dangerous pets, and cruelty and neglect cases, and asked if any policies or practices had changed in the recent months. 

Grahek said Animal Services refined guidance for field officers for how dogs should serve their bite quarantine, and had made some policy changes. Grahek said Animal Services had also worked with the District Attorney's Office to build partnerships and engage in conversations during animal cruelty and neglect investigations. 

Commissioner Julia Brim-Edwards also asked for clarification about the bite quarantine policy for dogs, and the spay and neuter program. 

She also noted the importance of performance measures and monitoring, requesting “what those metrics are for the safety and well-being of pets in our care.”

Chair Vega Pederson reflected on the collective impact of having so many recommendations lingering from past reviews. 

“For too long, the necessary changes were not made at the shelter,” said Chair Vega Pederson. “And we can’t say we did not have a heads up that these changes were required. We absolutely did. But the result was inadequate animal care and poor morale of the staff and volunteers.”