Continuing to clean house at its troubled animal care agency, Orange County officials Monday tapped a former administrator to serve as interim director until a new boss is chosen.
Russell Patton, who retired as county personnel director in 1995, will take over today as interim director of Animal Care Services, said Mike Spurgeon, chief of regulatory services at the Health Care Agency, which oversees animal control services.
Spurgeon said former interim director Mark McDorman will return to running the department's field operations, which includes catching strays, collecting injured and dead animals and investigating abuse complaints.
The caretaker appointment of Patton comes less than a month after the county's chief veterinarian, Dr. Richard Evans, was placed on leave, then abruptly quit while officials at the parent Health Care Agency were investigating why animal control didn't curb an outbreak of cat distemper at its shelter in Orange, which surfaced in October. Dozens of cats died in the outbreak, including some after they were adopted and others that were infected by shelter cats in the foster homes.
Animal advocates and the veterinary community had criticized Evans and his supervisor, McDorman, for failing to isolate and inoculate all healthy felines at the shelter, and for refusing to halt adoptions until two months after the outbreak first became apparent.
The two also were widely faulted for being slow to require sterilization for dogs and cats adopted from the facility, resisting input from animal advocates and fostering a siege mentality among employees.
Some critics have said McDorman did well as chief of field operations, but was over his head as an administrator and relied on poor advice from Evans on veterinary medicine issues.
"Unfortunately, Mark McDorman was baptized by fire and it was a sink-or-swim situation, and he didn't realize how tall the waves were going to be," said Robert Newman, a Santa Ana lawyer and a member of the advisory board.'
County officials declined to fault McDorman, though in December they made clear they had lost confidence in the shelter's leadership by taking over key administrative decisions.
McDorman could not be reached for comment Monday.
"Mark wanted to go back to his previous position, and we honored that," said Spurgeon, who praised McDorman as a hard worker and team player. "I am looking forward to having Russell over there. I think the employees will appreciate him as well."
During the height of the distemper outbreak, Spurgeon ordered the vaccination and separation of healthy cats, then placed an order for 200 cages in an effort to stop housing as many as 20 cats to a cage.
McDorman had been in the interim post since March, when director Judy Maitlen retired. The county wants to hire a permanent director by April 1, but Spurgeon and others conceded it may take longer.
The county has hired a recruiting agency to conduct a national search for a new director, a job that will pay about $90,000.
The new director also must oversee construction and planning for a new animal shelter planned for the former Tustin Marine Corps Air Station. It is scheduled to open in 2003 and would serve the county and 21 contract cities.
A more localized search will be conducted for a new chief veterinarian. That job has paid $65,000, but the county is considering raising the pay, Spurgeon said.
The 58-year-old Patton, who worked for the county for 27 years, has limited experience in animal care; from 1980-81 he served as an assistant director of public health with authority over the shelter.
Since retiring, he has taken a variety of public sector assignments, including interim director of human resources for the cities of Orange, Redondo Beach and Chino.
Patton, who will be paid $60 an hour, said Monday that he hoped to use his experience "to assist staff and keep them focused on providing top-level public service."