ST. JOSEPH — A former board member of the Humane Society of Southwestern Michigan is calling on the current board members to resign so a new board can be formed.
Rob Orlaske, who was on the board for about six years starting in 2009, said Friday afternoon, March 5, that Jill Svoboda poured her soul into the shelter during the 13 years she was the executive director before resigning Feb. 23. Several staff members also resigned to show unity with her, Orlaske said.
“She took a crappy shelter where animals were getting sick because the air inside the building wasn’t being recycled and had this new shelter built ... and got it paid off in the matter of a few years,” he said. “Incredible. ... It feels like it’s been stolen from her.”
The new $2.1 million shelter opened in 2018 at its new location at 5400 S. Niles Road in Royalton Township.
Orlaske said the former staff members have all told him the same story of relatively new board members trying to micromanage how the shelter was run.
“We didn’t bother her on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “If there was something we really needed to know, she would tell us. We thought the world of her.”
When contacted by phone on March 5, Svoboda said she resigned due to the “toxic” actions of current board members.
“I was being harassed. I just wanted it to end, and now it’s still going on,” she said.
Svoboda said she is only speaking out publicly now because board members are making false allegations against her.
In a written statement sent out March 5, board President Ron Klemm said law enforcement was contacted after Svoboda “abruptly” resigned and board members, Klemm said, found that key information was either missing or inaccessible because no passwords were left behind.
“While trying to locate information on computer systems, we observed irregularities that concerned us enough to contact law enforcement, which is now engaged in an investigation,” Klemm wrote.
Chief Deputy Robert Boyce of the Berrien County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that his office was contacted on Feb. 24 by the Humane Society’s board, but said he could make no comment because there is an ongoing investigation.
Svoboda said she didn’t take anything with her when she left her position and has nothing to hide. Svoboda also said she never had any access to the shelter’s bank accounts. Instead, she said the shelter paid a bookkeeper $500 a month to handle the shelter’s finances.
As an example of the board’s hostility towards her, Svoboda said she was harassed during a board meeting last fall after raising $277,419 in 51 days to support the shelter, after other fundraising activities were halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I was ridiculed for that because their name wasn’t in the paper,” she said, referring to a story that ran in The Herald-Palladium about her raising the money. “They wanted to be the one who took credit for that.”
Svoboda said another board member told her she should have had an outline of what she was going to tell the reporter approved ahead of time.
Orlaske said these are examples of board members not understanding what their roles are. Orlaske said it was Svoboda’s job as executive director to be the voice of the shelter. And he said the fact that she was able to raise so much money is proof that what she was doing was working.
“Just ask around. She was well-respected by other shelters,” he said.
He said several former employees told him that board members have insisted they hold in-person meetings even though they were in the middle of a pandemic.
“Not only was that unhealthy, it was against the law,” Orlaske said.
Online support for Svoboda and for the other staff members who resigned has been growing.
Shannon White of Berrien Springs started a Facebook group early Wednesday morning called Friends of the Humane Society of Southwestern Michigan. The group’s stated purpose is to “demand Ron Klemm and his toxic board resign. Reinstate Jill Svoboda and her team.”
Another supporter, Jackie Davis, started a Change.org petition Friday called “Southwest Michigan DEMANDS the resignation of Ron Klemm and his toxic board members!”
Svoboda said she is heartbroken about having to leave her position as shelter director.
“I put my whole life into (the shelter),” she said. “It wasn’t a job. It was a lifestyle for me.”
Klemm said in one of his statements to area media that over the past few months, board members have been “in the process of exploring new initiatives in the shelter’s operations, public outreach, staff management and transparency.”