Two fired, county takes over shelter

Tina Mills, left, and Rita Rhodes ask Kate Phillips (not shown) for a written termination notice after both were fired Friday morning.

A day after reopening its shelter, the president of the Horry County Humane Society's board of directors fired its director of operations and a vet tech. By mid-morning, Horry County's Director of Public Safety Paul Whitten and board members struck a deal that includes temporary county control of the shelter.

After the meeting, board president Kate Philips addressed the media and a sour group of employees, one of whom yelled "does your mouth ever freeze like that?" as Philips paused after being asked for a written termination letter from the two fired employees.

Once the hostility settled, Philips continued and praised the county's efforts to extend the 30-day "lifeline."

"I think that all the steps we have taken have been for the good of the animals," Philips said.

Whitten named an ex-Army sergeant and current HC police officer to act as temporary executive director to bring what Whitten described as needed leadership. Sgt. Gary Gause used to work as an animal control officer and will report directly to Whitten.

The interim executive director, Andree Frohman, resigned Thursday morning. The director before her was Renee Macklen, but Macklen was fired shortly after the December outbreak of distemper that forced a month-long closure at the shelter and the euthanization of an estimated 100 dogs.

Since board president Kate Philips fired director of operations Rita Rhodes on Friday, Whitten filled that position with HC police Officer Kelly Bonome, a certified vet technician.

Rita Rhodes and Tina Mills, the tech who was fired Friday morning, demanded a written termination notice from Philips. Philips refused to give them one, citing advice given to her by legal counsel. Rhodes and Mills say they were not given a reason for their termination, and Philips would not release it to the media because of personnel concerns.

When pressed for that written termination notice, Philips pressed back, saying "I had it prepared to give it (the termination) verbally to you, but you did refuse for me to verbally terminate you."

The firing of Rhodes and Mills prompted four additional shelter employees to quit. However, it wasn't clear if more intended to quit because many on staff were not at the shelter Friday. The ones who threatened "walking out" simply said they couldn't tolerate the current board of directors and their lies.

"If Rita's leaving, we're leaving," one said.

Philips made it clear during a press conference that it was some of the staff who had caused much of the turmoil over the past month.


Until 2006, Horry County's Department of Public ran the animal shelter. By law, it's required to provide such a shelter. But when a group of people received a charter to form a local chapter of the Humane Society, the new chapter approached the county about taking over the shelter.

In 2006, the county and humane society entered into a five-year contract which turned over operations to the society. By most accounts, that was a huge relief to the county. The county still owns the buildings and is responsible for the upkeep and maitenance, and it gives close to $500,000 to the shelter every year. That new chapter formed an autonomous board of directors which has ran the show since then.

However, there are contigencies in the contract that give the county a way to dissolve the contract and take over control of the shelter. When the county took notice of the fallout from the distemper outbreak and the deep infighting between the board and staff, it approached the board of directors about a temporary takeover. The board agreed it would like help, and the deal was sealed on Friday.

Whitten hopes his new appointments will help get things back in order and soften tensions between staff and the board. Over the next week, Whitten and the new crew will work with the board and staff to formulate some guidelines and goals which should be met and maintained at the end of the 30-day "lifeline."

Whitten said should they not be met and should things still be in disarray, the county would look to dissolve the contract and take back permanent control of the shelter.

"I hope that does not happen," Whitten said.

He said he hopes the plan helps shift focus back to the most important thing: the animals.

"We need to be focused on that. We need to get this facility fully operational and restore confidence in what's going on out here."

The pep talk did little to encourage the employees who were fired and who quit.

"This should be a happy time because we reopened and we have animals in here now, and it's not. We have to leave knowing that we don't know if they're going to be taken care of the right way," said Sara English with tears in her eyes.


Also on Friday, board of directors president Kate Philips responded to Horry Councilman Al Allen's plea for her to resign.

In a letter dated January 8, 2009, Allen's writes to Philips, "The recent events that required the shelter to be closed, along with over one hundred animals having to be euthanized, was a tragic situation that a number of people believe arose through negligence by a lack of proper and professional leadership."

The letter continues, "It is quite disturbing to me to have learned that on December 26, 2008, you apparently left instructions on a voicemail at the Animal Shelter to the Interim Director to use this closing as a method to get more funding from the County."

Allen continues by saying those events lead him to believe Philips' interests are elsewhere and not with the animals. He urges for her resignation to the board and concludes by writing, "By doing this, you will allow the healing and restructuring process to begin which is in the best interest to all."

Philips responded, "I wish he would have given me the consideration of a phone call before judging me, as I've never met him or spoken to him, and I do not plan on stepping down. ... I believe an apology is in order."