FORT WALTON BEACH — Panhandle Animal Welfare Society Executive Director Tracey Williams has resigned.
Williams, who since her hiring in June 2020 had struggled to change the culture of animal control and the perception of the role of a community-sponsored humane society, confirmed her departure Thursday.
She said in a text that she and the PAWS board of directors were working together on an exit strategy and that "there is nothing nefarious going on and no bad will."
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A news release issued Thursday afternoon stated Williams was leaving PAWS by late February to "pursue new opportunities."
“I am extremely humbled and proud that the previous and current leadership recognized the need for drastic changes and allowed me the opportunity to manage an extraordinary shift in animal welfare protocols based on input from independent expert assessments and best practices,” Williams said in the news release.
Ashley Degraaf has accepted the position of PAWS' interim executive director for 90 days, the press release said. PAWS will use that time to conduct a search for the next permanent executive director.
Williams was hired four months after Dee Thompson, who had been with PAWS for 34 years, resigned suddenly, citing personal reasons. It was later learned that a lawsuit had been filed by a former employee accusing Thompson of misusing and misapplying PAWS money, and making false statements in order to obtain or retain grant money.
That lawsuit was settled about six months after Williams took over as executive director.
Prior to taking the PAWS job, Williams had led local nonprofits and community organizations for 20 years. She had most recently served as executive director of Embrace Florida Kids and Fresh Start for Children & Families.
She compensated for her lack of experience working with animals by bringing in an expert, Colleen Cobb, as director of animal operations.
In an interview conducted following her first 90 days as executive director, Williams said she'd heard "horrible things" about the direction PAWS was following and had applied for the job because "I was really passionate about getting in here and giving this place a redo.”
Williams brought in a team from the highly regarded University of Florida Maddie's Shelter Medicine Program and vowed to rectify its findings that PAWS was exceeding its "capacity of care" for both dog and cat populations.
Early in 2021, PAWS announced changes to the way its animal shelter would function going forward, including its attitude toward pet owners dropping off unwanted animals.
"Now, instead of saying 'Yes, we'll take it, come on in,' the policy is 'What can we do to help you keep the animal?' " Williams said at the time. "We should be a last resort, a resource, not a boarding facility or dumping ground. ... We have to stop allowing animals that have a place to live to be surrendered until we can make room for them."
Two months after the Maddie's Shelter Medicine Program visit, PAWS held an “Empty the Shelter” event in which animal adoptions were made easy. The event allowed the agency to reduce the number of animals in its care from about 300 to 172, with 89 of the remaining 172 committed to a "foster to adopt" program that would eventually remove them from confinement and into homes or rescues.
“Together, the staff, leadership, and volunteers rallied to implement life-saving measures for animals and business decisions that will protect and sustain PAWS as a critical resource for Okaloosa County. I couldn’t be more proud of our collective accomplishments,” Williams said in the news release.
PAWS board President Randy Holland said the agency "is grateful to Ms. Williams for her many accomplishments during her tenure."
Accomplishments cited by Holland in the press release included Williams instituting critical recommendations from the UF Maddie’s Fund, updating outdated business models that had PAWS operating at a loss, acquiring more than $1.5 million in donor and grant revenue, and implementing life-saving protocols that increased live outcomes and reduced the agency's euthanasia rate by 82%.
As she neared the first anniversary of her job, Williams said she had reached a place where she could "look at the cost of doing the business of animal control." This led to the discovery that PAWS was losing between $200,000 and $400,000 annually on that side of its two-pronged service.
She began approaching local governments with a request to raise the per capita rate for animal control services from $3.86 to $7. This, she told officials, would allow the agency to stay afloat and provide enough extra money to put something toward necessary updates to infrastructure and equipment.
"I'm amazed that we have stayed in business this long," she said at the time. "We really have been running upside down."
At that time, Williams spoke of her hope for the future.
"We've just started righting the ship," she said.
But Williams momentum was slowed late last year when the city of Crestview announced that contract negotiations with PAWS had gone south and it would end its relationship with the agency and start an animal control division of its own.
In a news release announcing the decision, City Manager Tim Bolduc was quoted as saying, "We don't feel that PAWS is serving our citizens at the level they deserve."
Williams was clearly caught by surprise.
"It's just crazy," she said of the announcement. "I'm still in shock over how this is coming out and how they're making it look."
Patrick Maddox, who as the Okaloosa County Public Safety Director and oversees its animal control function, was sympathetic to the difficulties Williams encountered in her 18 months on the job.
"We completely understand the difficult nature of that position," he said.
Despite any setbacks, Holland said in the news release, Williams will leave PAWS "positioned better than ever to continue in its mission to protect vulnerable animals."
Maddox said the county's existing contract with PAWS is in no way affected by changes in its executive leadership.
"We will plan to continue serving our citizens under the provisions of that agreement by working together with PAWS as an organization, regardless of which leader fills a particular role," he said.
This article originally appeared on Northwest Florida Daily News: Okaloosa's PAWS Executive Director Tracey Williams resigns