WASHOUGAL — The West Columbia Gorge Humane Society is at a crossroad.
Following the firing last month of the no-kill animal shelter's top-ranking employee, the Humane Society's board members are taking heat from a vocal group of volunteers who say the move doesn't make sense.
Critics of the board say it's unclear why former Executive Director Tamara Scharfenkamp was abruptly terminated. The humane society's leadership says it's a confidential personnel matter.
At the center of the dispute is a larger issue concerning the future of the nonprofit group, which relies on volunteers and donations to stay afloat.
"I'm concerned that what's happening now is hurting the shelter," said Mark Fruechtel, a member of the Humane Society's board.
A handful of the shelter's longtime volunteers have expressed dismay at the board's decision to sever ties with Scharfenkamp, whose firing comes at a time when the Humane Society remains embroiled in a bitter dispute with a neighboring business at the Port of Camas-Washougal.
News of Scharfenkamp's termination spread fast among shelter volunteers, a number of whom have elected to cut their ties with the Humane Society.
Leah Thibeau, who volunteered as the shelter's canine adoption coordinator, wrote to the board on April 22 that Scharfenkamp's firing smacked of "mindless retribution that gave every impression of having been made for personal reasons rather than professional."
At a tense meeting of the Humane Society's board Thursday, about a dozen people, many citing previous volunteer experience with the shelter, said Scharfenkamp's unexpected termination was a bad move by the shelter -- one that would hurt the animals being cared for there.
In a heated — and loud — back-and-forth verbal scrum at the meeting, board members and critics traded accusations about mismanagement within the Humane Society.
Scharfenkamp said she was fired after she voiced concerns to a board member about how the shelter was being run.
"I want to do what's best for the animals," she said.
A handful of volunteers called for replacing the existing board members. Currently, the board has four open positions, but only the current board can appoint new members.
"I have no burning need to be on the board," Thibeau told board members at the meeting, "but I do have a burning need to help the animals."
Fruechtel said he couldn't discuss why the board terminated Scharfenkamp, who'd served as the shelter's executive director for 10 months. He denies the decision was retaliatory.
In an interview, Fruechtel said critics had been "whipped into a frenzy" by fifth-hand, inaccurate information.
"If they want to walk away from the organization," he said, "I'm fine with that."
Of the 200 or so official volunteers the shelter has on record, about 15 have said they're quitting, Fruechtel said. A number of volunteers support the board's decision.
He said board members will take control of the functions of the executive director. The board has no plans to hire a replacement.
Scharfenkamp's time in charge of the shelter was highlighted by an ongoing dispute with a neighboring business, Northwest Underwater Construction. The owner of the company, Jesse Hutton, complained about barking dogs that were housed at the shelter's kennel, going so far as to install a supersonic bark-quelling siren atop a fence separating the two properties.
The city of Washougal, which leases the building to the shelter, intervened, spending around $8,000 to build a sound-dampening wall between the properties. The city also brought in a semi-permanent animal control officer to help out at the shelter.
But the conflict soon went digital when Hutton and Scharfenkamp began videotaping each other.
Hutton said he recorded the kennel to document barking dogs. Scharfenkamp responded in kind by videotaping Hutton as he sat behind the seat of his large black SUV, parked across the street, recording the kennel.
Last month, supporters and volunteers of the shelter organized a demonstration across the street from Hutton's business. Both Fruechtel and Scharfenkamp were present for the demonstration but kept their distance from picketers.
The staffing change will not affect the city's relationship with the shelter, Washougal City Administrator David Scott said.
The city uses the shelter's kennel to impound animals.
"Of course, because (the shelter) is a dual-function organization, we have a desire to know they're providing quality services to the community," Scott said. "That doesn't change because of staffing decisions."