THE HEALTH Department, which less than two weeks ago was "reassured and pleased" by the interim CEO of the Pennsylvania SPCA, last Wednesday summoned managers of the SPCA's Animal Care and Control Team to a closed-door session to discuss complaints of bad practices at the city-funded shelter, the Daily News has learned.

The two-hour meeting was "satisfactory," said the Health Department's Izzy Melhem, acting director of Environmental Health Services, in addressing complaints that it had received from within ACCT and from outside - rescue groups and volunteers.

"We were unhappy about what we were hearing about," said Melhem, adding that some problems "are inherent in any transition."

ACCT, a division of PSPCA, took over the city animal-control contract Jan. 1. Chaos ensued a mere six weeks later, when PSPCA CEO Howard Nelson, who had sought the contract, quit in a huff. Board member Beth Ann White, a former banking executive with no kennel experience, was thrust into the breach, with almost predictable results.

I'm glad that the Health Department, which oversees the contract, responded quickly to complaints. I'm less glad that Melhem says that he is again satisfied by reassurances. What did Ronald Reagan say - trust, but verify?

With almost 3 million taxpayer dollars funding the contract, the public has a right to expect better - not worse - performance from PSPCA than it got from the Philadelphia Animal Care and Control Association, from which it wrested the contract.

The closed Wednesday meeting was followed by a Thursday meeting at the ACCT shelter at 111 W. Hunting Park Ave. attended by ACCT managers and representatives of a half-dozen rescue groups that pull dogs and cats from the shelter to find them forever homes.

That Thursday two-hour meeting was open to me, and it was eye-opening for members of the PSPCA executive board who attended - President Harrise Yaron, Vice President Jen Utley, Treasurer Shauna Binswanger, Secretary Amy Noor, plus board members Valerie Phillips and Jodi Goldberg.

Two key items on the city's Wednesday agenda were euthanasia and "stray hold" time, Melhem told me.

They are related.

Pennsylvania requires shelters to hold stray dogs for 48 hours before euthanasia, to allow time for owners to find them. ACCT recently extended the "hold" time from 48 to 72 hours. On the surface, this sounds like a good thing. But it has bad consequences. It means animals cannot be adopted out or released to rescue groups for an extra day, which ties up cage space. Insiders told of dogs tethered to the outside of cages, and cats stacked up in carriers.

If all cage space is filled with stray "holds" and an owner surrenders an animal, that animal will be put to death immediately because there is no mandatory "hold" on surrendered pets. Health got complaints that that was happening to these adoptable pets - just as in 2004, when I first wrote about tragic PACCA practices. Who turned the clock back to a dark past?

When I asked about the "stray hold" rule, there was confusion among the leaders about whether it was 48 hours or 72. No one knew who gave the order to change it. (It is now back to 48 hours.)

One element of the confusion came from shelter manager Karen Miller, who had the same job in 2004, when I reported the "House of Horrors" series that led to reform of PACCA. Some PACCA staffers called her "the executioner" because of her reportedly arbitrary method of assigning animals to euthanasia.

On Thursday, Miller said that the 48-hour "hold" starts after the animal had been in the shelter for a couple of days. That is incorrect. The clock starts at intake, and anyone in her position should know that. Miller left for vacation on Friday and couldn't be reached.

Another allegation aired Thursday was that "cute, fluffy" dogs were ordered sent to the PSPCA Erie Avenue headquarters for adoption rather than releasing them immediately to rescue. The Erie operation apparently felt overloaded with harder-to-adopt pit bulls and mixes. To my ears, the "fluffy policy" was semi-denied, but would be stopped, except maybe not completely. The issue revealed a schism between the Hunting Park and Erie operations, which are only 1 1/2 miles apart.

After the meeting, a distressed Yaron told me it was clear that "too many chiefs" caused confusion.

Another serious issue was raised by PhillyPAWS rescue group executive director Melissa Levy and others: the long lag time - two to four days or more - between receiving and vaccinating animals at the shelter. Untreated dogs will either spread or contract disease, and 95 percent of the 458 animals taken by PAWS since Jan. 1 were sick, Levy said. Rampant illness also was reported under PACCA, and PSPCA was supposed to fix that.

Beyond all this, a frightening storm is forming over the horizon. Winter is the traditional low-intake period for shelters. In the months ahead, intake will at least double, as the tsunami known as "kitten season," April to October, slams into the shelter.

ACCT has little time to get its act together, and that will require the rapid arrival of a permanent CEO, one with shelter experience.

On Friday, Yaron admitted to feeling "a little overwhelmed," said three candidates had applied, but the interview process had not yet begun.

She said she didn't have a candidate in mind, but knows "what we need and I hope to have things in place within a month."

It had better be a hope that is realized, or a lot of innocent, homeless, abandoned animals will die.

E-mail stubyko@phillynews.com or call 215-854-5977. For recent columns:

http://go.philly.com/byko.