Town debates $9,000 contract with shelter critic

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Diane Madden has been a presence at Hempstead Town Board meetings for years, and a critic of town officials and the town animal shelter.

At the board’s Jan. 8 meeting, council members mulled awarding Madden, of East Meadow, a $9,000 consulting contract with the animal shelter.

Republican Councilman Anthony D’Esposito sponsored the item. It was tabled by a majority of the town board, with D’Esposito and fellow Republican Councilwoman Erin King Sweeney dissenting. Dozens of animal shelter volunteers spoke against the contract, citing Madden’s social-media attacks on the shelter and its volunteers, as well as her litigation against the town.

The contract called for the town to hire Madden for 90 days to “cultivate mutually beneficial relationships with animal rescue organizations,” as well as “create compelling stories” about animals in the shelter, to boost adoptions. Madden would do all of the consulting work from home, per the contract.

Julie Ferrigno, an animal shelter volunteer from Westbury, was the first to speak against the contract, calling Madden a “constant, dark cloud following the shelter and discrediting everything we do every day.”

Madden, she said, insults and bullies staff members and creates a “hostile” environment for volunteers at the shelter.

The meeting stretched on for more than four hours, with several people speaking in Madden’s defense, as well as volunteer after volunteer speaking out against Madden’s hiring.

D’Esposito was questioned by a number of volunteers about the contract, and whether Madden submitted a resume, or if other people were considered. He insisted that the “volunteers do a great job,” and that the contract came up in a discussion among council members and shelter officials as a way to “get more dogs and cats out the door.”

“I didn’t just dream this up …” he said.

King Sweeney and Town Attorney Joe Ra explained further that the contract did not go out to bid — “I think our process was a little different than that,” King Sweeney said — and Madden was considered partially because “she is known to the board as an animal advocate,” according to Ra.

Democratic Supervisor Laura Gillen repeatedly said that she was unaware of the contract, as it was a late hand-up to the agenda. Gillen has been particularly targeted online by Madden in the past several months, with posts calling her a “ruthless traitor,” and alleging that she had a shelter animal killed “in a vengeance.”

Madden’s friend and fellow animal advocate Lucille DeFina said that many of the accusations against Madden were baseless, and that the town board was “empowering [volunteers] and allowing this to escalate to a level that’s really dangerous.”

Late in the evening, Madden took the microphone to defend herself, and complained of her background being “scrutinized,” demanding to know about the qualifications of one of the shelter’s top officials. She also noted that her attorney was watching the meeting, and aware of all the comments being made.

When Madden responded to a speaker who alleged that she had compared the shelter to concentration camps in social media posts, Madden told Councilman Bruce Blakeman that the posts could have been altered, but that she had said many things over the years. “I’m at a bit of a disadvantage, because I haven’t seen it,” she said.

On Jan. 11, Madden said on Facebook that her contract had “brought out of hiding those who have prospered somehow on the backs of voiceless animals while keeping the truth buried.”

Also, she said, people protesting her contract had “manipulated” documents from her 2010 suit against the town, and “doctored slanderous posts” to defame her.

Madden’s contract can be brought back up for a vote at any time at a future board meeting.