Hearing date set for Last Hope Cat Kingdom in Atwater

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comDecember 6, 2013 

— The fate of Last Hope Cat Kingdom’s permit will be decided at a hearing less than 10 days away, county officials confirmed this week.

The hearing is set for 8:30 a.m. Dec. 16 inside the board chamber on the third floor of the Merced County Administration Building, 2222 M St.

A staff presentation made by Jeff Wilson, code enforcement manager at the county’s Planning Department, will include details about the seizure of 301 animals at the Atwater shelter in June. Veterinarians euthanized 200 animals saying they were “too sick to survive.”

County staff will recommend either revoking or modifying the shelter’s permit at the hearing, although officials were tight-lipped Thursday about which recommendation will be made.

Last Hope Cat Kingdom co-owner Renate Schmitz or her representative will have an opportunity to respond and make a case for why the permit should be kept intact. Public comment will be limited to five minutes per person.

One of three decisions can be made: to revoke the permit, modify the permit or keep everything the same. A revocation would mean Schmitz can no longer keep more than five animals; a modification would limit the number of animals allowed by the permit, currently 125 cats and no dogs.

A decision is expected either that day or a “reasonable time” soon after, according to officials.

The decision will be made by hearing officer Mark Hendrickson, who also serves as director of the Planning Department, which is preparing the presentation for the hearing. He said he is going into the hearing with an open mind.

“I’ve shielded myself from any evidence and will be heading into this process having not seen a single picture or staff report,” Hendrickson said. “I have a firm belief that every permit holder should have an ability to voice reasons for why their permit should be maintained.

“I feel very confident heading into it that everybody will be given equal opportunity to voice their opinions,” he added.

This is the second time Hendrickson is serving as a hearing officer for the county. The first time was related to an event-planning permit; the outcome was modifications to satisfy neighbors’ concerns.

Hendrickson is serving as a hearing officer because Last Hope’s permit originally was issued by an official at his level, known as a “director’s level permit.”

Merced County Animal Services Manager Rick Blackwell declined to be interviewed about the hearing Thursday, referring questions to county management analyst Mike North.

“It will be based on the facts and we’ll try to keep it to the facts,” North said. “We really just want to get both sides and be as fair of a process as it can be.”

Robert Newman, Schmitz’s Santa Ana attorney, said Thursday he can’t comment on the hearing without knowing the county’s position on the permit.

“I haven’t seen the staff recommendations to the hearing officer at this point,” Newman said. “I’m not sure what their position is, so it makes it difficult to respond.

“I’m anticipating that the hearing officer will limit the issue to what it should be, which is whether or not they should be able to obtain their permit and not a public lynching of my client,” he added.

Schmitz on Wednesday said Last Hope has about 60 cats and 30 dogs on site, though the organization is not accepting new animals.

“We can’t continue going forward like this,” Schmitz said. “I’m looking forward to whatever comes out of this (hearing).”

As the county considers the fate of Schmitz’s permit, the District Attorney’s office must decide whether to charge her with felony animal cruelty and misdemeanor animal neglect.

Supervising Deputy District Attorney Steve Slocum said his office hasn’t made a decision, but he will attend the hearing or watch a broadcast of it to get information about Schmitz’s defense.

“I have everything that animal control has,” Slocum said, “but it’s likely that Ms. Schmitz will be presenting evidence that I would take into consideration when making a filing decision.”

Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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