In an unprecedented move, the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday rejected the appointment of Christina M. Abele as the new director of the county animal shelter.
Public criticism of the 22-year-old recent college graduate as inexperienced and unqualified over the last two weeks has turned her nomination for the $62,413-a-year job into a highly emotional point of controversy.
After a split board failed to approve the appointment, board Chairman Alan Grattidge, R-Charlton, said it is unclear what will happen next. The shelter in Milton is currently without a director, since Dan Butler retired earlier this month.
“This is a little bit of a gray zone,” Grattidge said after the meeting. “Obviously we need to get a new director in place at the animal shelter.”
Before the vote at their monthly meeting, supervisors heard two hours of public comment on the appointment — with most of the 26 speakers opposed to Abele, who lives in Halfmoon. About 70 people attended the meeting in Ballston Spa.
When the board voted, there were 10 supervisors in favor of Abele’s appointment and seven opposed. Six of the 23 board members were absent, for a variety of reasons; their absence is the equivalent of a “no” vote.
Under the board’s population-weighted voting system, Abele’s nomination fell about 20,000 weighted votes short of the 109,804 needed for approval. The opposition crossed party lines, with several Republicans voting against her despite her family’s history of campaign donations to the GOP, and previous party support for her.
Republicans from large-population communities, including Phil Barrett of Clifton Park, Dan Lewza of Milton and Matthew Veitch of Saratoga Springs, voted against her appointment, breaking with the county GOP’s usual unity. The board has a large Republican majority; all those who were absent Tuesday were Republicans. It was the first time a committee-approved candidate has not been appointed by the board as a whole,
“I have decided to vote the will of my constituents. It is nothing personal against Christina,” Veitch said.
Those who opposed Abele’s appointment reacted to the final vote with applause and whoops of joy.
“I’m very happy with how it turned out,” said Carol Lang of Ballston, who has been organizer of the Busy Bones 500 shelter fund-raiser since 2007, and had vowed to stop fund-raising if Abele were appointed. Lang said she is personally aware of more-experienced applicants who weren’t even given interviews, and she hopes they will now be considered.
The Friends of the Saratoga County Animal Shelter and other shelter volunteers had campaigned against Abele in the last two weeks, with phone calls and emails to supervisors.
“Talk is cheap. What we’re looking for is someone with proven experience,” said Jennifer Politis, president of the Capital District Humane Society.
“I just feel the animals deserve a more transparent process, and the best person for the animals isn’t the best-connected,” said Supervisor Joanne Yepsen, D-Saratoga Springs, who voted against the appointment.
Abele told The Gazette she will reapply if the search is re-opened.
“I respect the process. I’m disappointed. I know I’m qualified,” said Abele, who attended the meeting and defended herself at the end of the public comment period.
Abele, who graduated from Siena in December with a business degree, has been a volunteer at the shelter since 2010, and has also organized pet adoption clinics in Halfmoon and Clifton Park.
An all-Republican search committee recommended her earlier this month from among 62 applicants for shelter director, 10 of whom were interviewed. The identities of the applicants weren’t disclosed, except that three current shelter employees applied. Abele’s prospective appointment was then approved by the board’s Personnel Committee, and then approved last Wednesday by the board’s Law and Finance Committee, despite the controversy already growing around it.
Supervisors who were on the search committee said Abele made the most effective interview presentation of any applicant, with a vision for how to take the shelter for unwanted dogs and cats into the future.
Critics, however, noted that her father’s company, Abele Builders, has donated more than $12,000 to Halfmoon Republican Party coffers since 2005. Halfmoon Supervisor Mindy Wormuth, a Republican, was on all three committees and supported Abele’s appointment.
Going forward, Grattidge said it will be up to the board’s Personnel Committee to decide whether to re-open the search to new applicants, or go back the applications the county has already received.
“We will evaluate all the comments and where we are on this,” he said.
Some of the public speakers called for the county to update the personnel department’s job description for shelter director, which hasn’t been changed since 1979.
Over the last 30 years, the director’s job has become more complex, with more animal health and public safety issues falling under the director’s domain, some speakers said. Since the county opened a new $5.3 million shelter in 2010, it provides on-site spaying and neutering of animals before adoption, as well as other basic veterinary services.
The shelter, with five full-time and seven part-time employees, has an $830,000 annual budget. There are dozens of volunteers at the shelter, who are also under the director’s supervision.