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Costa Mesa must quickly make alternative plans for stray animals

Last Friday, when I turned my column in to my editor, I was planning to take the next two weeks off to enjoy the holidays with friends and family — returning Jan. 5.

Then, on Friday night, I got a call from Costa Mesa Councilman John Stephens with some interesting news about the controversial Orange County Humane Society Shelter (OCHS) in Huntington Beach.

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Stephens shared a copy of a Dec. 14 letter addressed to Costa Mesa City Manager Tom Hatch from OCHS owner De. Samir Botros.

“This letter is to inform you that our contract of animal control services with the city of Costa Mesa is due to expire on Jan. 21, 2018, “Botros wrote. “At this time, we have no intention to renew this contract.”

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Botros praised the work he’s done with the city: “We have worked together for several years, and in that time we have done our best to please you and keep our relationship in good standing. Every request we received was attended to in a timely manner and done at a competitive price, without compromising care.”

His tone changed as he wrote he was “thoroughly disappointed with the recent City Council decision of our new project at 642 Baker St.” in Costa Mesa and had hoped this “facility would provide a better environment for your city's homeless pets.”

Botros complained that the Planning Commission unanimously approved the project, only to be reversed by the council.

Calling the council’s attitude “hostile and premeditated, without giving us a chance to defend ourselves,” he went on to reflect that he felt that the last council meeting “was unprofessional, and the majority of the time was spent attacking us and our operation.”

“I found it very offensive, humiliating and insulting to me and my profession to give the impression, on record and to the public, that we are incompetent and doing less than an excellent job,” he wrote.

In my opinion, Botros had plenty of opportunity to speak up in his defense over the past months and at that very council meeting.

He didn’t.

I called him two weeks ago to allow him to give his side of the story. He still hasn’t returned my call.

Researching the allegations into practices at the OCHS shelter since October was a hard one for me, since I have two rescue dogs that I cherish.

These past months were tough, reading reader email accounts and talking with those wanting to share their own personal stories about experiences at this shelter.

In October I called the U.S. Humane Society in Washington, D.C., asking if they were aware of the controversy swirling around OCHS.

I assumed they were affiliated with OCHS because of their name, and would intercede here, if nothing else just to protect their brand.

To my surprise the public information officer told me they had no affiliation with OCHS — or any other organization using the words Humane Society. A page on their site provides further explanation. Apparently anyone can use the name Humane Society in their title.

From my first conversation with Stephens, it was clear he was going to be a champion for change when it came to this city’s animal shelter issue.

And he has. But what happens next?

With OCHS off the table in January, Stephens and the city need to swing into action with a transitional plan.

Stephens asked me to get the word out that he’s looking for local animal hospitals, rescue organizations and other neighboring shelters interested in helping with strays to contact the city manager’s office. They can also Stephens directly at (714) 337-1872.

Stephens explained that on average 25 dogs and 15 cats from Costa Mesa rely on the shelter each month. Spread that number over five to 10 organizations, and that population could easily be managed, at least temporarily.

Stephens feels Costa Mesa is a world class city and needs to bring that same level to the care of its stray animals. With an estimated 75% of Costa Mesa households keeping pets, my hope is the city will create a foster program where residents can get involved.

This is a unique opportunity for a public-private partnership to initiate change and solutions.

We saw this work successfully in Newport Beach, when it separated from OCHS in 2015, creating its own shelter on Riverside Drive in Santa Ana Heights. And residents responded by forming the nonprofit Friends of Newport Beach Animal Shelter.

Riverside Drive is zoned for kennels and I suggested Stephens reach out to those operators, asking for transitional help.

Botros not wanting to continue with Costa Mesa in this contract is good news for those of us who felt the city shouldn’t continue to partner with him in the first place.

Circumstances now force the city’s hand to look for transitional solutions, moving toward a permanent one, sooner rather than later.

It’s time for this council to put principles above politics, come together and work with the community for the greater good.

That said, I'll be back on these pages Jan. 5.

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