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Letter from Pets in Need staff alleges major errors led to puppy deaths

Staff asks board of directors to hold executive director accountable

A dog ready for adoption sits in his cage at the Palo Alto Animal Shelter, which is operated by Pets In Need, in Palo Alto on June 15, 2021. Photo by Daniela Beltran B.

The deaths of seven puppies while they were being transported by the nonprofit Pets in Need on Aug. 2 were caused by multiple senseless violations of law and protocol, stated a letter written days later to the Pets in Need board of directors.

The letter from a group of staff members, as well as with the subsequent response from leaders of Pets in Need, raise questions about what protocols have been put in place since the deaths to prevent future tragedies.

The puppies, who were being brought to the Palo Alto Animal Shelter from the Central Valley, were packed into a pet crate that allegedly gave them no room to turn around, the letter claimed, and the animals were not given water, proper air conditioning and ventilation.

Pets in Need, which has a shelter in Redwood City and is contracted to operate Palo Alto's shelter, routinely rescues animals from other shelters. Charges of animal cruelty and neglect, which are misdemeanors, have been filed by the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office against the three employees involved in the Aug. 2 incident.

The letter cited multiple failures that should have been known to the already seasoned staff, one of whom is an operations manager with 20 years of experience, according to her LinkedIn page.

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Although the nonprofit owns two vans, one which is larger and has full air conditioning in the front and back, the staff took the smaller van outfitted only with air conditioning in the passenger area. The decision appeared to be based on the fact that it could hold three people while the larger van could hold two, the letter said.

In a Nov. 11 email attributed to Executive Director Al Mollica, Pets in Need disputed the employee's claims that the van used in the Aug. 2 rescue didn't have temperature control.

"The van is a two-year-old Mercedes-Benz crew van that has been used hundreds of times to safely transport animals from all over Northern California, including the Central Valley. The air conditioning system is powerful and is designed to provide air-flow from the front of the van to the back."

Three managers went on the rescue run: Patty Santana, the Redwood City shelter operations manager; Maggie Evans, the behavior manager; and Ingrid Hartmann, human resources manager. The letter said it is unusual for a third person to attend a rescue run, let alone HR staff.

As a result, the animals, who should have been kept comfortable, cool and hydrated, traveled for more than four hours in 90-plus-degree heat, according to the letter.

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"The transport team should have taken the larger van on a rescue run of this nature. Instead, the Van A was chosen because it contains two rows of seats, unlike Van B, which can accommodate only the driver and one passenger. This was the first of many avoidable mistakes made throughout the day," the letter said.

What's more, while shelter administrators planned and approved of picking up only 20 animals on the Aug. 2 rescue trip, the trio took eight additional animals, the letter noted. The additions might have contributed to the crowded conditions.

The transport team was also aware that the puppies were in questionable health when they took them, the letter said, but "decided to take them anyway without contacting the Palo Alto medical director. This violates the intake policy that all medical cases must be approved by the attending medical director/veterinarian at the location where the animals are to be housed."

This puppy crate, which measures 30 inches long, 18 inches wide and 22.5 inches in height has a 40-pound capacity. It held seven puppies weighing a total estimate of 70 pounds. Contributed photo.

The letter also noted crowded conditions. The transport team packed a single, medium-sized crate measuring 30 inches long, 18 inches wide and 22.5 inches high with all seven puppies.

"Crates of this size have a maximum weight capacity of 40 lbs., but this crate held over 70 lbs. It provided no room for the puppies to lie down or even turn around without stepping on each other. This kennel was placed on the floor of the van, directly behind Ms. Hartmann's seat, not in a designated kennel space. The crate was shrouded in a towel to 'protect the other animals from potential disease,' completely blocking what little airflow that was able to reach the back of the van and leaving the puppies with minimal ventilation," the letter said.

None of the 28 animals were given water or allowed time out of their kennels during the long drive, which violates the Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters, the letter said. This was not the first time that a member of the transport team had been reminded that animals on rescue runs need water, a person close to Pets in Need told this news organization, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The letter to the board also states information that differs from what the transport team and other staff told police during the investigation.

According to an Oct. 26 Palo Alto Police Department press release, the employees had said that none of the animals appeared distressed when they checked them during a stop for gas in Los Banos on the return to Palo Alto. But the puppies were apparently ill before and during the transport, the letter stated.

"The staff noted that the seven puppies had vomited and experienced diarrhea, yet nothing was done about this during the trip. These seven puppies died from neglect during transport: They were stiff to the touch but still hot, indicating they suffered fatal hyperthermia, also known as heat stroke. All 21 of the surviving animals were dehydrated and exhibiting signs of heat stroke as well," the letter said.

The deaths were reported after a Palo Alto Animal Control officer saw the bodies and opened a police report to investigate this incident. A Palo Alto police officer interviewed everyone who was involved and the case was referred to the District Attorney's Office.

The letter from staff requested three changes to help prevent future tragedies: Have trained professionals update the nonprofit's safety protocols; hold the transport team members accountable; and hold Executive Director Al Mollica accountable for failing to uphold the standards of Pets in Need in response to the situation.

Mollica said in the Nov. 11 email that "the Aug. 9 letter was directed to the board, and I did not respond to it. To help us move forward, and in recognition of the challenges during the pandemic, we are working closely with consultants to assist with an improved work-place environment, and we have instituted stern measures to address the events of Aug. 2."

The email didn't specify what changes have taken place.

Patty Jackson, a volunteer with Pets in Need, gives treats to dogs up for adoption at the Palo Alto Animal Shelter in Palo Alto on March 7, 2019. Embarcadero Media file photo by Veronica Weber.

A request for comment from Pets in Need Board President Rob Kalman was not returned, and Pets in Need didn't provide a copy of the board's response to the letter to this news organization.

In an Aug. 10 email to staff obtained by the Weekly, however, Kalman said the board held an emergency meeting on Aug. 9 and voted unanimously to hire an outside investigator to discover and document all of the facts related to the incident. The investigation was likely to begin quickly. "Our goal is to discover the facts and then take appropriate actions," he wrote.

Pets in Need was also asked to clarify many of the allegations made in the employees' letter, including against Mollica. The staff letter claimed Mollica was aware of other incidents in which animals had died during transport and had discussed this with staff individually. However, it claims that he told staff in emails and large meetings that no prior incidents had occurred.

The Nov. 11 email didn't explicitly deny that Mollica discussed previous deaths of animals with staff. However, it stated: "We have never experienced anything like this rescue run in our 56 years of service to the Bay Area community."

It also alleged that Mollica told police that "new" Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters would be implemented, even though the nonprofit has used the protocols for years. It also alleged that he is suggesting worms or vaccine reactions, not negligence, caused the puppies' deaths, the letter said.

In the Nov. 11 email, Mollica stated, "Until we have necropsy results on the puppies, we can only speculate about what caused the animals to die. Pre-conditions, such as their care before they were retrieved, Parvo, vaccine reactions, and gastro-intestinal problems are all possible contributing factors to their death, according to our two experienced medical directors."

The statement didn't address the employees' assertion that the other animals also showed signs of heat stroke and dehydration.

Mollica also said that the police investigation prevented Pets In Need from following "what would have been our existing unusual death investigation protocols."

No one has been disciplined, a person close to the nonprofit told this news organization. In fact, Santana, who was shelter operations manager for one of the locations, since the incident has been made operations manager for both Palo Alto and Redwood City locations, the person said. Pets in Need has confirmed that Santana currently heads operations for both shelters but has not addressed whether she was given expanded duties after the Aug. 2 incident.

In his Nov. 11 email, Mollica said that Santana and Hartmann remain employees; Evans chose to leave the organization.

On Nov. 10, the organization provided a statement, which read in part:

"During the past three months, Pets In Need has reviewed and assessed the events that transpired during and after the rescue run that we made on Aug. 2. Our staff and Board of Directors have been reviewing information regularly and we have been as forthcoming as possible. Specifically, we are:

• Cooperating with the Palo Alto Police Department's ongoing investigation;

• Supporting our employees involved in this matter, including providing them with legal counsel and other support as necessary;

• Continuing our own internal review processes to ensure that we remain good stewards of the faith placed in us.

"We are committed to maintaining the confidence that Palo Alto residents have placed in Pets In Need by continuing to meet the needs of the community."

The person who is close to the organization said they are disappointed with Pets in Need's handling of the incident.

"Pets in Need overall has been a good organization, but they need to accept responsibility," the person said.

Editor's note: This story was updated on Nov. 12 with additional responses from Pets in Need.

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Letter from Pets in Need staff alleges major errors led to puppy deaths

Staff asks board of directors to hold executive director accountable

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Fri, Nov 12, 2021, 6:59 am
Updated: Fri, Nov 12, 2021, 3:47 pm

The deaths of seven puppies while they were being transported by the nonprofit Pets in Need on Aug. 2 were caused by multiple senseless violations of law and protocol, stated a letter written days later to the Pets in Need board of directors.

The letter from a group of staff members, as well as with the subsequent response from leaders of Pets in Need, raise questions about what protocols have been put in place since the deaths to prevent future tragedies.

The puppies, who were being brought to the Palo Alto Animal Shelter from the Central Valley, were packed into a pet crate that allegedly gave them no room to turn around, the letter claimed, and the animals were not given water, proper air conditioning and ventilation.

Pets in Need, which has a shelter in Redwood City and is contracted to operate Palo Alto's shelter, routinely rescues animals from other shelters. Charges of animal cruelty and neglect, which are misdemeanors, have been filed by the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office against the three employees involved in the Aug. 2 incident.

The letter cited multiple failures that should have been known to the already seasoned staff, one of whom is an operations manager with 20 years of experience, according to her LinkedIn page.

Although the nonprofit owns two vans, one which is larger and has full air conditioning in the front and back, the staff took the smaller van outfitted only with air conditioning in the passenger area. The decision appeared to be based on the fact that it could hold three people while the larger van could hold two, the letter said.

In a Nov. 11 email attributed to Executive Director Al Mollica, Pets in Need disputed the employee's claims that the van used in the Aug. 2 rescue didn't have temperature control.

"The van is a two-year-old Mercedes-Benz crew van that has been used hundreds of times to safely transport animals from all over Northern California, including the Central Valley. The air conditioning system is powerful and is designed to provide air-flow from the front of the van to the back."

Three managers went on the rescue run: Patty Santana, the Redwood City shelter operations manager; Maggie Evans, the behavior manager; and Ingrid Hartmann, human resources manager. The letter said it is unusual for a third person to attend a rescue run, let alone HR staff.

As a result, the animals, who should have been kept comfortable, cool and hydrated, traveled for more than four hours in 90-plus-degree heat, according to the letter.

"The transport team should have taken the larger van on a rescue run of this nature. Instead, the Van A was chosen because it contains two rows of seats, unlike Van B, which can accommodate only the driver and one passenger. This was the first of many avoidable mistakes made throughout the day," the letter said.

What's more, while shelter administrators planned and approved of picking up only 20 animals on the Aug. 2 rescue trip, the trio took eight additional animals, the letter noted. The additions might have contributed to the crowded conditions.

The transport team was also aware that the puppies were in questionable health when they took them, the letter said, but "decided to take them anyway without contacting the Palo Alto medical director. This violates the intake policy that all medical cases must be approved by the attending medical director/veterinarian at the location where the animals are to be housed."

The letter also noted crowded conditions. The transport team packed a single, medium-sized crate measuring 30 inches long, 18 inches wide and 22.5 inches high with all seven puppies.

"Crates of this size have a maximum weight capacity of 40 lbs., but this crate held over 70 lbs. It provided no room for the puppies to lie down or even turn around without stepping on each other. This kennel was placed on the floor of the van, directly behind Ms. Hartmann's seat, not in a designated kennel space. The crate was shrouded in a towel to 'protect the other animals from potential disease,' completely blocking what little airflow that was able to reach the back of the van and leaving the puppies with minimal ventilation," the letter said.

None of the 28 animals were given water or allowed time out of their kennels during the long drive, which violates the Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters, the letter said. This was not the first time that a member of the transport team had been reminded that animals on rescue runs need water, a person close to Pets in Need told this news organization, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The letter to the board also states information that differs from what the transport team and other staff told police during the investigation.

According to an Oct. 26 Palo Alto Police Department press release, the employees had said that none of the animals appeared distressed when they checked them during a stop for gas in Los Banos on the return to Palo Alto. But the puppies were apparently ill before and during the transport, the letter stated.

"The staff noted that the seven puppies had vomited and experienced diarrhea, yet nothing was done about this during the trip. These seven puppies died from neglect during transport: They were stiff to the touch but still hot, indicating they suffered fatal hyperthermia, also known as heat stroke. All 21 of the surviving animals were dehydrated and exhibiting signs of heat stroke as well," the letter said.

The deaths were reported after a Palo Alto Animal Control officer saw the bodies and opened a police report to investigate this incident. A Palo Alto police officer interviewed everyone who was involved and the case was referred to the District Attorney's Office.

The letter from staff requested three changes to help prevent future tragedies: Have trained professionals update the nonprofit's safety protocols; hold the transport team members accountable; and hold Executive Director Al Mollica accountable for failing to uphold the standards of Pets in Need in response to the situation.

Mollica said in the Nov. 11 email that "the Aug. 9 letter was directed to the board, and I did not respond to it. To help us move forward, and in recognition of the challenges during the pandemic, we are working closely with consultants to assist with an improved work-place environment, and we have instituted stern measures to address the events of Aug. 2."

The email didn't specify what changes have taken place.

A request for comment from Pets in Need Board President Rob Kalman was not returned, and Pets in Need didn't provide a copy of the board's response to the letter to this news organization.

In an Aug. 10 email to staff obtained by the Weekly, however, Kalman said the board held an emergency meeting on Aug. 9 and voted unanimously to hire an outside investigator to discover and document all of the facts related to the incident. The investigation was likely to begin quickly. "Our goal is to discover the facts and then take appropriate actions," he wrote.

Pets in Need was also asked to clarify many of the allegations made in the employees' letter, including against Mollica. The staff letter claimed Mollica was aware of other incidents in which animals had died during transport and had discussed this with staff individually. However, it claims that he told staff in emails and large meetings that no prior incidents had occurred.

The Nov. 11 email didn't explicitly deny that Mollica discussed previous deaths of animals with staff. However, it stated: "We have never experienced anything like this rescue run in our 56 years of service to the Bay Area community."

It also alleged that Mollica told police that "new" Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters would be implemented, even though the nonprofit has used the protocols for years. It also alleged that he is suggesting worms or vaccine reactions, not negligence, caused the puppies' deaths, the letter said.

In the Nov. 11 email, Mollica stated, "Until we have necropsy results on the puppies, we can only speculate about what caused the animals to die. Pre-conditions, such as their care before they were retrieved, Parvo, vaccine reactions, and gastro-intestinal problems are all possible contributing factors to their death, according to our two experienced medical directors."

The statement didn't address the employees' assertion that the other animals also showed signs of heat stroke and dehydration.

Mollica also said that the police investigation prevented Pets In Need from following "what would have been our existing unusual death investigation protocols."

No one has been disciplined, a person close to the nonprofit told this news organization. In fact, Santana, who was shelter operations manager for one of the locations, since the incident has been made operations manager for both Palo Alto and Redwood City locations, the person said. Pets in Need has confirmed that Santana currently heads operations for both shelters but has not addressed whether she was given expanded duties after the Aug. 2 incident.

In his Nov. 11 email, Mollica said that Santana and Hartmann remain employees; Evans chose to leave the organization.

On Nov. 10, the organization provided a statement, which read in part:

"During the past three months, Pets In Need has reviewed and assessed the events that transpired during and after the rescue run that we made on Aug. 2. Our staff and Board of Directors have been reviewing information regularly and we have been as forthcoming as possible. Specifically, we are:

• Cooperating with the Palo Alto Police Department's ongoing investigation;

• Supporting our employees involved in this matter, including providing them with legal counsel and other support as necessary;

• Continuing our own internal review processes to ensure that we remain good stewards of the faith placed in us.

"We are committed to maintaining the confidence that Palo Alto residents have placed in Pets In Need by continuing to meet the needs of the community."

The person who is close to the organization said they are disappointed with Pets in Need's handling of the incident.

"Pets in Need overall has been a good organization, but they need to accept responsibility," the person said.

Editor's note: This story was updated on Nov. 12 with additional responses from Pets in Need.

Comments

S. Underwood
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Nov 12, 2021 at 8:52 am
S. Underwood, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Nov 12, 2021 at 8:52 am

From bad to worse. End the contract. Reach out to the county.

The city management on this has been MIA. Many folks raised warning bells that the Pets in Need partnership was a bad, bad idea... combination of lazy-leadership and politics pushed it forward anyway.


Violet Hernandez
Registered user
East Palo Alto
on Nov 12, 2021 at 10:00 am
Violet Hernandez, East Palo Alto
Registered user
on Nov 12, 2021 at 10:00 am

How in the heck did they manage to even fit SEVEN puppies in that crate? They must have been stuffed in. Ohh poor little things. And look at it, it’s filthy.


pearl
Registered user
another community
on Nov 12, 2021 at 5:46 pm
pearl, another community
Registered user
on Nov 12, 2021 at 5:46 pm

Pets In Need -This incident is outrageous!!! Those involved should be arrested and charged with extreme cruelty to animals. Pets In Need, you have lost the support of me and my friends forever!!!


Fritzie Blue
Registered user
Stanford
on Nov 13, 2021 at 5:43 am
Fritzie Blue, Stanford
Registered user
on Nov 13, 2021 at 5:43 am

You like to give humane groups the benefit of the doubt, as they do so much good, and are often dealing with less than healthy pets. This, however, is deeply disturbing, and bears a full investigation. It also makes you wonder about other groups, and what is going on behind the scenes that the public doesn't know. But we do know, sadly, that it's always the voiceless--the animals--who are the victims.

Thank you to Palo Alto Online for your reporting. I hope to see follow-up pieces on this story.


JR
Registered user
Palo Verde
on Nov 13, 2021 at 7:53 am
JR, Palo Verde
Registered user
on Nov 13, 2021 at 7:53 am

Management is attempting to blame low-level workers for what happened, but the blame lies at the top - senior management allowed this to happen through bad training, hiring practices, and a culture of corruption. Senior management should be on trial, not the low-level workers making close to minimum wage.

One thing we should all agree on - this organization should no longer receive money from Palo Alto. Rip up the contract, stop the corruption.


Optimist Pessimist Realist
Registered user
East Palo Alto
on Nov 13, 2021 at 4:46 pm
Optimist Pessimist Realist , East Palo Alto
Registered user
on Nov 13, 2021 at 4:46 pm

JR which low level employees are being blamed for this mess?


S. Underwood
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Nov 13, 2021 at 5:46 pm
S. Underwood, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Nov 13, 2021 at 5:46 pm

Why is the City Manager's Office and Community Services fully silent on this? They set this up. Pets in Need is administering this contract and these services under their supervision.

Is our leadership fully M.I.A?


RDR
Registered user
another community
on Nov 14, 2021 at 6:38 pm
RDR, another community
Registered user
on Nov 14, 2021 at 6:38 pm

What seems to have transpired is that these puppies were in a shelter which would have put them down because they were sick. This was the one chance Pets In Need had to pick them up before they would have been terminated. They hadn't planned to take these puppies because the other shelter thought they were too sick in the first place.

So, the message is, the workers should have never tried to save these sick puppies. They were beyond help. Trying just made them look bad.


Heckity
Registered user
Barron Park
on Nov 15, 2021 at 1:44 pm
Heckity, Barron Park
Registered user
on Nov 15, 2021 at 1:44 pm

Well, now PIN has terminated THEIR contract with the city - so perfect - let me break up with you before you expose and break up with me. Because Palo Alto Animal Control has NEVER had an incident of SEVEN DEAD PUPPIES, whose deaths were caused by the three women who wanted to ride together rather than taking an appropriately sized van. PIN has done an abysmal job and reaped upwards of 3M dollars from the city. Good riddance.

Al Mollica, you're not God's emissary for animals - your back door antics are known and disliked. This is on YOU.


Heckity
Registered user
Barron Park
on Nov 15, 2021 at 1:45 pm
Heckity, Barron Park
Registered user
on Nov 15, 2021 at 1:45 pm

Well, now PIN has terminated THEIR contract with the city - so perfect - let me break up with you before you expose and break up with me. Because Palo Alto Animal Control has NEVER had an incident of 7 DEAD animals, whose deaths were caused by the three women who wanted to ride together rather than taking an appropriately sized van. PIN has done an abysmal job and reaped upwards of 3M dollars from the city. Good riddance.

Al Mollica, you're not God's emissary for animals - your back door antics are known and disliked. This is on YOU.


Heckity
Registered user
Barron Park
on Nov 15, 2021 at 1:45 pm
Heckity, Barron Park
Registered user
on Nov 15, 2021 at 1:45 pm

Well, now PIN has terminated THEIR contract with the city - so perfect - let me break up with you before you expose and break up with me. Because Palo Alto Animal Control has NEVER had an incident of 7 DEAD animals, whose deaths were caused by the three women who wanted to ride together rather than taking an appropriately sized van. PIN has done an inferior job and reaped upwards of 3M dollars from the city.

Al Mollica, you're not God's emissary for animals - your back door antics are known and disliked. This is on YOU.


Heckity
Registered user
Barron Park
on Nov 15, 2021 at 1:46 pm
Heckity, Barron Park
Registered user
on Nov 15, 2021 at 1:46 pm

Well, now PIN has terminated THEIR contract with the city - so perfect - let me break up with you before you expose and break up with me. Because Palo Alto Animal Control has NEVER had an incident of 7 DEAD animals, whose deaths were caused by the three women who wanted to ride together rather than taking an appropriately sized van. PIN has done an inferior job and reaped upwards of 3M dollars from the city.

Al Mollica, you are not God's emissary for animals. These fatalities are on you.


Heckity
Registered user
Barron Park
on Nov 15, 2021 at 1:46 pm
Heckity, Barron Park
Registered user
on Nov 15, 2021 at 1:46 pm
Heckity
Registered user
Barron Park
on Nov 15, 2021 at 1:51 pm
Heckity, Barron Park
Registered user
on Nov 15, 2021 at 1:51 pm

Sorry for the duplicate posts. They didn't appear to be posted - a message said there was a problem with my comment, which apparently there wasn't.


S. Underwood
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Nov 15, 2021 at 4:52 pm
S. Underwood, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Nov 15, 2021 at 4:52 pm

Heckity -- Can you tell us more about the contract termination? Is that a done deal? You are right about Al. The secret about how PiN operates has been leaking out of the bag for quite a while now.

@Weekly, sounds like there's more news on the horizon here.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 15, 2021 at 5:12 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Nov 15, 2021 at 5:12 pm

Here's a link to their contract termination letter I saw posted on NextDoor
Web Link

I'm very concerned because it's important for Palo Alto to provide animal services and to bring the services and hours of operation back to where they were before Keene cut them. Not blaming Pets in Need here, just stressing the importance of seamless service.


Janet Tipper
Registered user
Woodside
on Nov 15, 2021 at 5:13 pm
Janet Tipper, Woodside
Registered user
on Nov 15, 2021 at 5:13 pm

This just breaks my heart....I shall NEVER donate 1 penny to an animal organization who pays for legal representation for those responsible for any death of an animal due to their neglect and the thought of 3 individual women representing themselves to be "rescuer's"....and deprive such a basic need as water is beyond my comprehension. I am sure that Pets In Need will feel the repercussions of their decision to stand behind these paid workers who caused the extreme neglect resulting in 8 puppies deaths while under their "care" !!!!


eileen
Registered user
College Terrace
on Nov 16, 2021 at 3:35 am
eileen , College Terrace
Registered user
on Nov 16, 2021 at 3:35 am

RDR, cramming puppies into a small cage with ZERO water or air, is sure to KILL
even healthy puppies!!


ScottieZimmerman
Registered user
Midtown
on Nov 17, 2021 at 12:27 pm
ScottieZimmerman, Midtown
Registered user
on Nov 17, 2021 at 12:27 pm

The letter from PIN staff members was lucid and well written. They made valid points and clarified details that had been muddled by enraged accusations in comments from anonymous members of the public. My thanks to the letter writers.


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