Friends of the Shelter Back on Track

After a rough summer full of public controversy, FOSMAS regains
momentum and good will
Gilroy – In one summer, Evon Dumesnil helped raise $13,000 for the South County Animal Shelter, led the fight against county officials who wanted to close it and got pushed out of the volunteer group that supports it.

“It was just three months, and boy what an experience,” Dumesnil, of Morgan Hill, said of her time in Friends of the San Martin Animal Shelter, or FOSMAS. “It’s hard enough to fight city hall, but even harder when the group is not cohesive and bickering among themselves.”

In the midst of the public controversy surrounding budget cuts at the shelter, a private melodrama was playing out in FOSMAS. The entire time its members were battling to keep the shelter open six days a week, they were fighting among themselves for control of the group.

And when it was over, the shelter was intact, but the group wasn’t. It’s leader and founder, Philip Jewitt, had quit, as had the members who fought hardest against the budget cuts. For three months, a group of passionate, good-hearted adults acted like catty teenagers.

“A lot of people had different philosophical ideas,” said Kim McPherson a San Martin resident who left the group in the summer after four years as a volunteer. “There were too many strong-headed individuals who forgot what the mission of FOSMAS was. It was almost like high school. There was a lot of cattiness.”

The San Martin shelter, the only one in South County, houses about 3,500 cats and dogs a year. According to shelter staff, they find homes for 54 percent of the dogs and 74 percent of the cats they take in.

Credit for those figures is often given to FOSMAS, which Jewitt founded in 2001 and helped build to a 60-strong group that is widely recognized with boosting adoptions, cutting euthanasia rates and improving the lives of animals at the facility.

But for all of its success, according to interviews with current and former members, by the spring of 2005, FOSMAS had reached a crossroads and was a divided group.

Some members wanted to make FOSMAS a more professional outfit, attract corporate money and build an agency akin to the Humane Society Silicon Valley. Others were content to remain a small, volunteer organization. Board meetings turned into acrimonious, hours-long debates over the future of the group.

“Warranted or not, there was a little mini-hysteria,” said Kim Messina, who was made president of FOSMAS last week. “I think a big part of it was we were growing rapidly and there was a lot of miscommunication.”

Then in June came news that Santa Clara County Agricultural Commissioner Greg Van Wassenhove wanted to cut 1.5 vacant positions and keep the shelter closed two days a week rather than one to save the county $90,000.

Jewitt, who also managed the shelter at the time, was publicly critical of Van Wassenhove. In August, he was reassigned to animal control. At the time, he quit FOSMAS, saying that he thought his public dispute with his boss was undermining the group’s goals. In October, Jewitt resigned from the county.

Meanwhile, Dumesnil and Gilroy resident Elaine Jelsema were bombarding county officials and supervisors with e-mails demanding that the shelter be kept open. Supervisor Don Gage was hit with so many calls and letters that he asked County Executive Pete Kutras to take another look at the budget.

“The pressure we put on through the newspaper, attendance at meetings and e-mails was why we won the war,” said Penny Noel, who’s now the FOSMAS board secretary.

In August, Kutras came through with $121,000 in state money to keep the shelter open, but rather than celebrate a victory, FOSMAS members were fighting for control.

“It was almost like a power struggle,” McPherson said. “And without Phil, there was a power vacuum. There were too many individual agendas.”

Jelsema, who left the group recently after 18 months as a volunteer, said she regrets getting involved in the letter-writing campaign.

And some in the group resented Dumesnil, Jelsema and others who had complained loudly and bitterly about the cuts. Some felt that FOSMAS had done irreparable damage to its relationship with the people in charge of the shelter.

“I don’t think it was FOSMAS’s place to be part of it,” Messina said of the budget fight. “Of course, we want the shelter to stay open as much as possible, but we really want to focus on what’s best for the animals and stay out of the political realm.”

Noel, who turned down Jewitt’s request to succeed him as president, said FOSMAS is now regaining the momentum and good will it lost over the summer. FOSMAS is also reorganizing itself into a power-sharing, committee-driven group.

“The worst is over, we’re working great together,” said Noel. “It was a rocky summer, and we owe a great debt to Phil because he lost his job over it.”

The former members interviewed for this story all said they want FOSMAS to be successful because of what the group can do for the animals. McPherson continues to volunteer, though Jelsema and Dumesnil said they no longer feel welcome there.

“I hope they clean up the shelter so it’s a nice and tidy facility,” Dumesnil said. “I hope they work very, very hard to get a new shelter built. The shelter is for the animals. FOSMAS is for the animals.”

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