continued Judith Muñoz, president of the Humane Society's board of trustees, said the board gave Merritt free rein to review all operations and make improvements, such as extending office hours to 7:00 p.m. to increase pet adoptions. "I went through the documents line by line," she said, referring to the thick packets sent by the Committee to Protect the Animals. "Most of the information isn't accurate. It's nonsense," she concluded, predicting that allegations of mismanagement should not affect donations. "I think a lot of our donors are sophisticated enough to know there can be disgruntled employees in these situations."
Despite the board's continued support of Merritt and confidence in his keen knowledge of animal welfare, others aren't so sure.
In November, John and Gwen Morgen changed plans to leave part of their estate to the San Diego Humane Society, where they are volunteers. "It's almost a dysfunctional organization right now," said John Morgen, a retired manager for Unisys Corp. "John Merritt has a 1950s, chain-of-command management style. He makes decisions in a closed office and has little communication with anyone except the people who report directly to him," Morgen said. "The employees are very resistant to change, which isn't good either. If you ask the employees, they'll say, 'Good, talented people left.' When you ask John Merritt, he'll say, 'Good riddance.' "
By all accounts, Merritt's management style sharply contrasts with that of his predecessors, Fred Lee and Lauren Joniaux, who sought input from the entire staff before making decisions. Under their consensus-seeking leadership, the society resembled a close-knit family rather than a dog-eat-dog corporation. Lee, who died of a heart attack in 1996, had groomed Joniaux to succeed him. The board employed her as interim director for two years at an annual salary of $51,000 before hiring Merritt for $96,000. Donations soared to $5.1 million during Joniaux's final year, but Merritt and trustees attribute that increase to the unpredictable nature of bequests, which are posthumous gifts.
"A lot of people were considered, including Laurie," recalled trustee Robert Esch. "John Merritt is more business-oriented than Fred or Laurie. Each situation requires a different style. There was a lot of concern about building a new facility, looking for land. Our lease was about to expire." Esch, a former chief financial officer for Grossmont Bank, said he considered Merritt to be "head and shoulders above" other job applicants. "John has a particularly horrendous job. He came into an environment where people had lost their saint. Everyone held Fred Lee in high regard. You have to remember that this isn't the usual for-profit workplace. At the Humane Society, people are very passionate about what they do."
Former trustee Lisa Kearns describes herself as one of the few people who felt uneasy on meeting Merritt when she served on the Humane Society board's search committee. "This guy was a suit who talked numbers. I found it strange that he boasted of increasing budget," Kearns recalled. "John is not a warm-and-fuzzy person in any way, shape, or form, but other committee members liked him. Essentially, after a one-hour interview, he was given the job."
Kearns's unease grew over time, she said, as Merritt's descriptions at board meetings often contradicted what she had learned from employees. "Even in my conversations with him, I could see how stories had changed. There would be two different renditions of the same conversation. I once told John to his face that I wouldn't buy a used car from him."
When Kearns's term as trustee ended in September, she was not appointed as an advisor. Instead, another trustee informed Kearns she was "too close to the employees" and that "it's time to move on." Dissension within the society will soon cease, Kearns said, noting that new trustees are taking control and remaining employees who preceded Merritt are searching for other jobs.
Regarding loss of employees, Muñoz agrees with Merritt that losing two-thirds of the staff within two years is not unusual. That translates to about 30 percent a year, which is consistent with attrition before Merritt, she said. But "there's no question that some people, whoever they are, are unhappy."
Hector Cazares, program director of the Department of Animal Control, said the Humane Society's workforce turnover strikes him as high. On hiring Joniaux to be regional director of the county's animal shelter in Carlsbad, he recalled, she was disillusioned about the departures of her society coworkers. The department, which employs about 130 people, loses about 20 workers a year, he estimated. "The Humane Society might be going through what we went through several years ago, when we went to zero-based budgeting. There's a paradigm shift occurring all over the country in government and humane societies. There's more talk of boosting productivity and doing things more efficiently. Bottom-line, this is becoming a business," Cazares said. "Who are we to pass judgment on another agency -- especially if they're a good organization? They're having difficulties. We have them, too."