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Sonsini Asks For Judgement In Lawsuit Over Leadership

By Andy McKeeveriBerkshires Staff
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Friends of Eleanor Sonsini Animal Shelter is asking a judge to rule that some board members illegally attempted to oust the board president and the board treasurer.
That filing also flirts with accusations that Mayor Linda Tyer joined the effort to dislodge the leaders from the private non-profit. The mayor's office has denied comment on the matter, citing that being a legal issue, and Sonsini's attorney Stacey Elin Rossi declined to elaborate further.
Nonetheless, Rossi has filed in Westfield District to have a judge make a determination that on Nov. 3, 2017, Sonsini board members held an illegal meeting to vote out President Krista Wroldson-Miller and Treasurer Judith Trumble and that it ultimately caused the shelter, which the nonprofit operates, to lose some $10,000 in potential donations.
Rossi wants the court to rule that not only was the vote was illegally held, but also that the shelter is able to recoup monetary damages.
"The hearing on the motion is May 1," Rossi said on Wednesday. "If we can get the ruling then the case is closed and we can move on."
The lawsuit is specifically against former board members Kimberly Arre-Gerber, Lisa Denault-Viale, and Gloria McKay. The three are accused of holding a special meeting at Arre-Gerber's home in November for the purpose of voting Wroldson-Miller and Trumble — who were not in attendance — off the board. They subsequently changed the locks at the shelter.
Rossi said those board members did not follow the corporation's bylaws in taking such action. She claims Wroldson-Miller and Trumble were not properly notified of the meeting; that there was no quorum; that McKay did not have authority to call such meeting; and that the bylaws require a cause for the removal of a member.
"The bylaws require cause for removal and they certainly don't have cause," Rossi said.
The arguments made by the Friends of Sonsini center mostly around former Manager Lori Robertson, and Renee Dodds, the owner of Love Us or Leave Us and a former board member, and the board members. Dodds and Trumble had a dispute last June over bookkeeping in relationship to a fundraising event organized by Dodds, according to the suit.
Dodds resigned from the board shortly after. Sonsini alleges that Dodds hired shelter staff to work at Love Us or Leave Us, a canine boarding facility. That included Danielle Lapointe and Emily Chasse, who both resigned from Sonsini that August.
Lapointe had particularly voiced frustration with a policy implemented limiting the number of personal dogs employees could bring to the shelter and Wroldson-Miller and Trumble say Lapointe was disregarding that policy along with a number of other employee violations.
In Lapointe's resignation letter, she expressed frustration working with the board of directors, saying the members were behaving unprofessionally and instilling "drama, havoc, and hatred." And Chasse alleges that she was being forced to work with an aggressive dog — though Rossi disputes that the dog was aggressive or that Chasse voiced any concerns for handling the canine.
"It hurts me to know that this 'executive' board has chased away every employee and good board member that has come along. And I can not even believe that it has come to the point where I, who have been through everything with this shelter feel the need to walk away," Lapointe wrote.
The loss of staff members led to the hiring of Robertson, who started in September. Wroldson-Miller maintains that as president and CEO, she remained in charge and Robertson was an employee. But, Rossi makes an argument that Robertson had been increasingly ignoring Wroldson-Miller's instructions, violating the shelter's policies, and had become increasingly at odds with Wroldson-Miller and Trumble.
"There was an escalating issue with Robertson being insubordinate. ... she was doing things her own way," Rossi said.
Rossi documented a series of alleged violations of the shelter's policies ranging from adopting dogs out before required quarantines were completed or too soon after surgery as well as the use of overtime. They allege that Robertson was improperly caring for the animals and failing to maintain proper records.
Rossi said the other board members had a responsibility to defend the corporation's policies but instead worked against Miller. The claim says the employees and other board members were subverting the established chain of command.
"The defendants did nothing to support Miller and did everything to undermine the corporation ... the right thing for them to have done was to support Miller," Rossi said. "I truly believe the lack of care for the corporation shows they are willing to sacrifice Sonsini. They'd rather see it destroyed than to have Miller succeed."
In the middle of those disputes, McClay tendered her resignation from the board on Oct. 19, 2017. Less then a week later, however, Denault-Viale nominated McClay back onto the board.
Wroldson-Miller then alleges that on Oct. 24, 2017, Robertson adopted out a cat that "with a highly infectious disease" without properly notifying the new owner.
Robertson and Wroldson-Miller continued to dispute the way the shelter was being managed and the policies in place. As tensions continued, McClay ultimately called for a special meeting to be held at Arre-Gerber's home.
Rossi said that notification only said the meeting was to "address the Friends of Sonsini Animal Shelter Board of Directors" but did not specifically call for the vote to remove board members.
Arre-Gerber, Denault-Viale, and McClay reportedly met and voted Trumble and Wroldson-Miller off the board. Rossi contends that McClay was not a board member at the time because of her Oct. 19 resignation and that she had not been re-elected to the board — thus the three did not constitute a quorum. Further, Rossi says the shelter's bylaws require an officer to call a meeting and McClay was not an officer.
"Even if the November 3, 2017 meeting was lawfully called and held, defendants did not have cause to terminate Trumble or myself. Nor did we receive notice that the purpose of the meeting was our removal," Wroldson-Miller wrote in her testimony.
Throughout November, Rossi said adoptions fees were not collected properly and that the issues had led the annual letter drive to be delayed. That delay, Rossi said, cost the shelter some $10,000 in potential donations.
"That loss is compared to previous years when they were in control of the shelter," Rossi said.
On Nov. 27, Rossi filed for an injunction in court to place Wroldson-Miller back in control. On Dec. 12, Judge William O'Grady ruled in Rossi's favor, thus putting the pair back into leadership roles while the case proceeded through court. 
Four days after the injunction was issued, Dodds allegedly met with Mayor Tyer to discuss the issue. 
"On December 14, 2017, Dodds met with the mayor of the city of Pittsfield, Linda Tyer. Dodds indicated to Robertson that 'the goal [of the mayor] is to remove Krista and Judy,' " Rossi's case documents read.
Rossi also attached an alleged conversation between Dodds and Robertson in which Dodds wrote, "the city doesn't want her in. They need to talk to lawyers but will pull financials and all kinds in the works." Robertson responded by asking if the mayor word "give the shelter back to us," to which Dodds responded, "the goal is just to remove Krista and Judy."
In her deposition, however, Dodds refuted that her conversation with the mayor regarded the removal of Wroldson-Miller and Trumble. Under questioning, Dodds said, "it was about several things, several things that had nothing to do with this." The message also appears to say that Dodds had been in conversation with Denault-Viale "quite a bit," though that isn't entirely clear that is who Dodds was referring to exactly.
In the deposition, Dodds said she regularly talked with the mayor because "we watch her dog." Dodd is also a member of the Animal Control Commission and served on the mayor's commission developing the plans for a dog park. She had started the popular dog day-are center, Love Us and Leave Us, in 2006.
The mayor is also mentioned in the case with concern that Robertson had given Tyer "preference in adopting a kitten over other applicants." 
"On September 27, 2017, McClay emailed Robertson, all staff, and the board her concern that the mayor of Pittsfield was given preference in adopting a kitten over other applicants and communicated mixed messages," Rossi's filings read.
On Feb. 28, the city opted to end its contract with the Friends of Eleanor Sonsini for management of the city's shelter. With that, Sonsini would have to vacate the city-owned building within 30 days.
Wroldson-Miller said it would be impossible for the shelter to move out of the building within 30 days and Rossi had attempted to work with the city's attorney to develop a transition plan. Wroldson-Miller said the shelter has been operating under the assumption that the city would give it more time.
Last Friday, two city police officers attempted to get the key from Wroldson-Miller. She did not hand it over and Sonsini is continuing to operate the shelter for now. 
Meanwhile, the suit also alleges that McClay, whose husband is the animal control officer in Dalton, interfered with a contract renewal there and had "demonstrated no interest in trying to salvage the contract."
Rossi would not elaborate on what is coming down the road with the contract or with the building. Wroldson-Miller, still the shelter's CEO, has made an offer to the city to purchase the Downing Industrial Park building.

Tags: animal shelter,   lawsuit,   

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