Image: The top portion of a letter mailed to members and donors to Pueblo Animal Services (PAS), and signed by the CEO of the Humane Society of Pikes Peak Region, attacking a proposed life-saving ordinance that would regulate the agency she over-sees, under a contract with the City of Pueblo, represents an overt conflict of interests that the City should address.
Most people have heard the term "conflicts of interest," but a lot of people don't fully understand what it means, or why it is so important that they be eliminated from businesses, nonprofits and government work. It should be stated that the fact that a person who works for an entity that does government work has a conflict of interest is not in and of itself a bad thing. However, ethical standards in government, nonprofits and business dictate how a person is supposed to behave when they have a personal interest that is in conflict with the agency for which they are working.
It is not unusual for people to play multiple roles in their daily lives. It is also not unusual for the interests of different roles to compete. Public agents, as stewards of the public trust, are required to put the public's interest before their own. Impropriety occurs when an agent, faced with conflicting interests, puts his or her personal or financial interest ahead of the public interest. When a conflict of interest is possible, an agent is expected to abstain from the discussion and the vote.
For these reasons, conflicts of Interest policies are commonplace throughout the nonprofit, for-profit and public fields with strict penalties for those who violate them, up to and including termination. Conflicts of interest are such an important part of good governance that most rules and policies surrounding them require public servants to avoid even potential appearances of conflicts of interest.
All of those facts have caused animal advocates to respond with shock over a recent, undated letter, signed by Jan McHugh-Smith, the CEO of the Humane Society of Pikes Peak Region (HSPPR). The letter attacks a proposed ordinance called Pueblo Animal Protection Act (PAPA) that would regulate an animal shelter she oversees under a contract with the City of Pueblo, Colorado, a contract, it is worth noting, that brings in a substantial portion of HSPPR's revenue each year, and helps that agency pay Smith a $200,000 salary, plus other compensation. The proposed ordinance, if passed, would require her agency to do more to save animals' lives once they come to the shelter, in order to increase their Live Release Rate (LRR). Pueblo Animal Services (PAS) and HSPPR currently have two of the lowest save rates of any shelters in the state.
The overt conflict of interest in this discussion between Smith's role as the head of HSPPR and her other one as a contracting agent of the City of Pueblo has not caused Smith to recuse herself from the discussions about PAPA. Proper codes of ethical conduct would dictate that, for example, when questioned by the press about her opinion of the ordinance, she should divulge her conflict of interest and indicate that because of that conflict, she must decline to comment. However, we have previously reported, she has been the most vocal opponent of the proposal in the press.
For all of these reasons, Smith taking interviews with the press in order to oppose PAPA represents a violation of normal ethical standards that would constitute grounds for termination at agencies all over the USA. However, the writing of the undated letter, in which she urges people who support Pueblo Animal Services - an agency funded by the City of Pueblo - to contact City Council members to express their opposition to PAPA is far worse. It is impossible to see this as anything other than the head of an agency being paid by the City of Pueblo taking resources in order to exert undue influence on City policy and law in order to benefit herself and her organization. At the same time, she has been refusing to engage with animal advocates who have been offering her help and support to help her reduce her kill rates. Frankly, were it not for her position, and her contract with the City of Pueblo, Smith would not have access to the mailing list of PAS supporters. Using a mailing list of those people, to ask them to contact City Council members in order to sway policy in favor of her and her organization should be viewed as gross misconduct.
Smith concluded her letter to PAS supporters with a request that they contact City Council members to ask them to vote no on PAPA. She then provided them with a sample letter, and a list of City Council members and their contact information.
The Pueblo City Council should demand that she stop this. It is an abuse and misuse of her position and City resources. Furthermore, they should not give much weight to Smith's pessimistic viewpoint about potential impacts of PAPA, because of her overt conflicts of interest. Instead, they should engage subject matter experts who do not have these conflicts of interest, and who know and understand how this ordinance works. We suggest they talk to shelters who are already complying with the provisions of PAPA, and who strongly support it. Failing to do so would be an example of very poor governance.
Update: Since we first published this (just moments ago) we have been told that HSPPR is robocalling PAS supporters asking them to contact City Council members to ask them to oppose PAPA. We are wondering where we got their phone list... but probably don't have to wonder. We are working to get a recording of the robocall and will share it if we can obtain a copy.