Alpine Humane Society members vote themselves out of power at contentious special meeting

Emotions ran high at the Alpine Humane Society meeting as members ultimately voted to abolish their own membership and voting rights.

ALPINE – Emotions ran high at the Alpine Humane Society meeting Tuesday, as members ultimately voted to abolish their own membership and voting rights, expand the mandate of the organization to serve all of Texas instead of specifying Brewster County and restructure the nonprofit organization to be board-governed.

The special meeting on December 3 at the Alpine Library was called a week earlier, proposing a vote on heavy revisions to the organization’s bylaws. The original bylaws upheld a member-driven organization where those who paid yearly dues of $15 had voting rights that dictated decision-making.

Board President Vicki Gibson tried to dispel rumors that the meeting was called over the Thanksgiving week in order to dissuade engagement. She said the board’s lawyers advised them to call the meeting before a large batch of members’ good standing expired, which would mean they couldn’t vote.

“It was done so we could include as many members as possible,” Gibson said.

Gibson informed the audience that only “members of record” could speak or vote on the bylaw changes that night — to which attendee Diane Baylor protested, saying the board refused to let her renew her and her husband’s membership ahead of the vote. Baylor said she had eighteen years in the organization and was appalled by the proposed changes.

The society had 52 members in good standing, with over 20 attendees at the meeting and a handful more calling in via phone.

Before board member Gwin Grimes motioned to approve the proposed bylaws, Gibson outlined the three major changes: removing restrictions of the organization’s activities to Brewster County, removing all membership, and removing requirements for officers and directors to reside in Brewster County.

Speaking in support of her motion, Grimes said that the board was already legally required to act in the best interest of the society, but voting members did not have the same legal responsibilities, which meant decisions were in the hands of people without a legal duty of care, loyalty and obedience.

One issue that loomed large in the room that night was the Dr. Helen Cole Trust, a gift of over $1 million given to the Alpine Humane Society in 1996.

“Helen Cole intended her trust be only used for Brewster County,” Grimes said. Many members through the evening spoke about Cole’s intention to support animals in Alpine and Brewster County and expressed concerns that expanding the reach of the organization might violate her wishes.

Grimes said those funds, which account for 23 percent of the society’s annual budget, were in no danger of being used outside Brewster County. “We have no issue setting up numerous dedicated budget items and bank accounts,” she said.

Member Marlys Hersey pushed back on this in her subsequent comment, speaking against the bylaw changes. “All I see is this onslaught of overpopulation of animals,” she said. “While the organization has grown, yes, I don’t see that it’s still meeting even the most basic needs of Brewster County and its animals.”

Executive Director Jeanine Bishop said that the expansion was proposed so that the society could lend their nonprofit status to help fundraise in other communities, and that funds raised in a community would be spent in that community. She said that grant opportunities were greater when there were collaborative efforts with entities outside of Brewster, which the Humane Society often needs in its efforts to spay and neuter at the current rate of demand and to transport animals to adoption outside of the area.

Pat McCall agreed with Hersey, speaking to the crowd about local needs, and pointing out that part of the changes would serve Gibson, whose current role as president violated the bylaws because she didn’t have Alpine residency.

But McCall also considered how to turn a loss of membership into a good thing. “Maybe I can be a Friend of the Alpine Humane Society and turn it around as a positive,” she said. Many local Alpine organizations are board-directed, but have associated “friends” groups, which meet and make recommendations to the board.

Ken Durham spoke over the phone, commenting that he would be more for the changes if the membership could re-elect the board, since the current board was previously elected with a different understanding of the organization.

He also suggested the board identify major stakeholders and reserve positions on the board for representation from each of those communities, rather than having at-large board members.

“I hope that we’ve made a convincing argument to help show people that we do want to do the right thing for the animals of Brewster County, and also we want to be able to do the right thing for even more animals,” Rebecca Davis, the board’s newest member said. “The more we’re able to expand what we’re doing, expand our funding, expand our services, the more animals we can help.”

Durham wasn’t alone in recommending revisions to the proposed changes, rather than voting on them that night. Patsy Culver requested more time to think through and revise the changes that were presented only one week earlier.

George Bradley, hoped there could be compromises, but the motion was made to approve the changes wholesale, and so the vote proceeded.

In a 20 to 8 vote, members approved the new bylaws. Baylor, the former member in attendance, asserted she would speak even though she wasn’t technically allowed.

“I think you need to familiarize yourself with the people who spend every day of the week with the shelter,” she said, pointing out a handful of frequent society volunteers who had just voted against the changes.

Executive Director Bishop addressed Baylor. “I would like to see y’all on the board,” she said. “I would like to see some people with different perspectives, a little more history and different ideas.”

Speaking about the vote the following morning, Bishop said, “Obviously we’re all really happy about the outcome. I think we did a good job remaining factual,” despite what she called the “pretty high emotions” that came out that evening.

She credits the “drama” in animal rescue to the nature of the subject. “It’s just an emotional thing when you’ve got animals that aren’t well or are suffering in some way. As draining as this whole process was because of the drama and emotions, we understand where they’re coming from,” she said.

The organization has grown since its founding, now having two full-time and six part-time employees, a 2020 budget three times the size of 2019, and the thrift store bringing in what the board called unprecedented profit.

What’s next for the AHS? Bishop says the nonprofit is ready to launch into fundraising in these other communities and put a huge push on spay and neuter, whether it’s feral or pets.

“We’ve had over 275 cats in the shelter or foster system and that’s not counting the ferals,” she said. “So, that’s our big push. That’s the root cause, this lack of spay and neuter.” The AHS pays full price for anyone looking to spay or neuter their pet.

Less than 24 hours after the vote, the tensions have already lessened. Bishop says some of the “no” voters are already organizing to begin the formation of a Friends of the Alpine Humane Society group. Board member Davis is spearheading the effort on the society’s end, hoping to incorporate their input into board decisions. Bishop says they welcome that input.