It was nonstop chaos punctuated by brief periods of simmering quiet.
Meetings of the Pike County Humane Society’s board of directors were, until very recently, held quietly out of public view in the office of their pro bono attorney, Eric Hamill. More recently, as behind-the-scenes turmoil has burst into the open, the nonprofit organization has been meeting at Milford Borough Hall.
At their Sept. 22 meeting, vice president Mary Cervati and Hamill tried time and again to gain control of the rambunctious hall. President John Somers was absent due to illness.
It’s difficult to tell what the crowd — made up of humane society volunteers, employees, and members of the public — was most angry about, other than a profound dissatisfaction with the board of directors. According to the bylaws, the membership is supposed to elect directors at its annual meeting. But it is unclear, because Hamill and the other directors are not answering the paper’s questions, to know when the last vote was held, or when the next one will be.
The board said director nominations will be accepted at the next meeting. In a discussion later, board members said they thought at least five seats were up but named only named three: John Somers, Carol Sprout, and Barry Heim, the longtime former director who recently left the humane society under a cloud of sexual assault allegations.
The meeting began with Cervati announcing that no one was allowed to record the meeting. She then listened to questions about the accuracy of the minutes. This discussion dissolved into profanity-laced yelling from all parts of the room. One man called out that someone should call the police.
The board agreed to correct the minutes. One man asked if they were ever going to talk about the animals.
“We can’t start the meeting for all the questions,” Hamill said. “I’m trying to answer your questions.”
One man said Hamill wasn’t supposed to be running the meeting. Cervati asked people to hold their questions and comments for the end of the meeting.
The board then started to discuss personnel issues while the meeting was still open to the public. Members of the audience yelled out that these issues should be discussed only in executive session.
Where are the bylaws? Where is the money?
No one knew where the humane society bylaws were. Hamill shuffled through some papers as people demanded to know how they could elect a different board (a link to the bylaws can be found in this article at pikecountycourier.com).
Treasurer Kim Alexander gave the treasurer’s report as people shouted questions about how the organization’s money was spent and where it came from. Hamill said he had recommended that QuickBooks be used. “Barry just never did that,” said Alexander, referring to Barry Heim.
Jane Deesch called out, “Why aren’t they letting us know about the money? What are they hiding? They had to know all these people would be here. Where is the money?”
The door was left open for ventilation. People walked in and out to join the loud ongoing conversation outside borough hall. Inside, they changed seats constantly. Selina McGinnis, a humane society employee and Heim accuser, and Barry’s wife, Janet Heim, were among the restless crowd. Some left for good, saying it was a “sh-- show.”
The crowd quieted down a bit as Bill Wahlert addressed fundraising. He talked about a parking lot where scrap metal and old digital equipment can be dropped off for $5 an item or $10 per carload. Funds could be raised for the humane society this way, he said.
Later in the meeting, Wahlert said the board must keep in mind how this meeting appears to the community, and how the humane society’s image affects fundraising and, ultimately, care for the animals. He said they needed to form committees to address the issues before them, and let the public know their goals and explain the work they are doing. The public needs to be able to trust the humane society, he said.
Cervati said they didn’t have enough people to form committees.
The talking-out-of-turn, the shouting, and the talking in groups resumed.
Someone named Tom offered to get prices on steel doors for the dogs’ cages and promised to get back to the board with what he finds out.
The argument then turned to sick cats. Alexander said she didn’t get a text from McGinnis about sick cats. The yelling got louder. It was difficult to learn what had happened to the sick cats.
McGinnis said the cats were still sick.
The board asked for quiet. Some yelled that the directors weren’t running the meeting. “Give ‘em a chance. They might,” Hamill said.
The board said its newsletter wasn’t ready yet. The shouting continued.
Everyone in the audience agreed that an employee named Heather came to work every day and did a great job. Cervati said, “Not every day.” The crowd yelled, “Come on Mary!”
Bumpy leadership transition
The director hired to replace Barry Heim, J. Michael Freeman, resigned from his post after just a few weeks. Over the din, Cervati attempted to read his letter of resignation.
In the letter, he says Cervati took him to visit the shelter, where they encountered a dog who grabbed her coat, tore it, then scratched her arm. People in the audience said Cervati had been told not to enter the area where the dogs were but did it anyway.
She continued. Freeman in his letter said the close relationships that volunteers and employees had with Janet Heim, to whom referred to repeatedly as the former director’s estranged wife, concerned him because she is still living in a trailer on humane society property. This, he said, made it difficult for him to function as the new director.
The board gave Janet Heim 90 days to leave the property.
Still discussing Freeman’s resignation, Cervati, said “What the paper” — meaning the Courier — “wrote was BS.”
The yelling resumed. Cervati asked Matt, a volunteer who puts in many hours a week cleaning cages at the humane society, to leave the room.
Matt shouted back, “Call the police! I am not leaving!”
They didn’t, and he didn’t.
The humane society is being sued. The first hearing for the case, Janet Heim and Barbara Lippincott vs. The Pike County Humane Society, is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 18, in Courtroom One. The attorney for the plaintiffs is Ronald M. Bugaj. The presiding judge is Gregory H. Chelak. Hamill didn’t return emails asking for comment about the lawsuit. Bugaj was in court when the paper called.
Near the end of the meeting, Janet Heim erupted. She had not spoken during recent previous open meetings. She stood up and walked to the front of the room, calling Cervati profane epithets.
“It’s not about me,” Janet said. “It’s about animals. Who will get up at two AM to meet their needs?”
She walked out. Barbara Lippincott stood up, left the board’s table, and followed her out of the room, returning several minutes later.
Jamie Smith, who attended the meeting, said afterward that attorney Hamill “obviously doesn’t know the law, and the board knows nothing either. They just listened to Barry for so many years. They need Mike back as director, who would be at the shelter each and every day handling all matters and then reporting to the board at monthly meetings. That’s how it’s done.”
Linda Kelly, who lives in the Woodlands, said in a phone conversation after the meeting that she rescues animals and has five cats and a dog at home. She said she came to the meeting to see what was what, and was surprised at how much good work is going on at the humane society.
“It’s a shame that we have bad seeds on the board,” she said. “They need to be voted out. People don’t know the full extent of the problem or understand. They shouldn’t be on the board. There are a lot of problems. Barry seems to be gone, but the board members seem to support him in his absence. Just get rid of the drama. Get people who care about the animals. The meeting was very disturbing.”