Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Control Freaking

Animal control, especially dog limits, is still a hot topic. At the end of the last council meeting, they directed the Animal Services board to consider an enhanced Spay and Neuter ordinance, a possible breeders ordinance, and a look at zoning, but left limits on the table. There are better alternatives to limits.

There was some misinformation at the last council meeting, especially on zoning. It was stated that the zoning ordinance made breeding and selling dogs in a residential neighborhood illegal. This is not quite correct. Animal kennels are illegal which "includes any structure or premises where animals ordinarily considered household pets are kept, boarded, bred or trained, for commercial gain." Those are limited to commercial districts.

This is talking about when the primary use of a structure is a kennel. What about when someones pet just happens to have pups in a residence and the owner sells some? Residences fall under a category called household living. Among the allowed accessory uses are "raising of pets, hobbies, home occupations." It also states "Allowed home occupations include, but are not limited to" and gives a list. The few occupations specifically not allowed in a residential area are "Hair cutting or styling shops, nail salons or other beauty or cosmetic-related business. Tattoo parlors. Pet grooming. Any form of repair shop." No mention of breeding. There are restrictions on auxiliary buildings, traffic, etc. but those apply to any home business. It appears that small scale breeding is legal unless you violate other laws such as nuisance, public health or animal cruelty. If we want to do more about breeding with zoning, we must redo the zoning ordinance. We must define when breeding crosses the line into a business that is not suitable for residences. Change the spay and neuter laws and develop a breeders permit. Until then we must use existing tools effectively.

Texas and San Angelo laws make it illegal to "transport or confine an animal in a cruel manner." There are federal guidelines on space requirements, especially for commercial operations and laboratories. There must be adequate space for "freedom of movement and normal postural adjustment." The space must allow a dog "to turn about freely, to sit, stand and lie in a comfortable manner, to walk in a normal manner." The department of agriculture even has a formula and procedure to calculate this space based on an animals size, and whether or not there are pups. The space available for adequate housing puts a maximum limit on the number of dogs that can be properly cared for on the property. This also takes care of the case where animals are jammed into small cages, as was evidently happening in the puppy mill.

This leads into another important point. Violations of zoning and nuisance laws only allow for fines and maybe contempt of court charges. Animal cruelty laws allow for the seizure of dogs, and possible jail time for the owners. Cruelty laws need to be used more effectively. The limit should be space per dog, not the dogs per person.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Animal Limit City Council Timeline

The following is a time line of City Council meetings where a dog limit and changes to the animal control ordinance have been discussed since the first mention of limits on the number of animals in 2006.

June 20, 2006
First discussion of Animal limits.
November 7, 2006
Further discussion of Animal control issues. First discussion of a possible breeders
February 6, 2007
Further discussion of animal control, with discussion of breeders license fees and other related fees. Ross(sic) Jacoby spoke against breeders licenses or permits, and suggested using existing laws. It was noted that only 33% of owners license pets.
March 20, 2007
Discussion of draft ordinance on animal limits submitted. Motion to bring back ordinance limiting total dogs to 6 passed 4-3. Motion prohibiting sale, trade, or transfer of animals on public property passed 5-3
April 3, 2007
First public hearing to limit number of dogs to 6 failed by a 3-4 vote.

Judge Gilbert stated there were existing laws that would address the issues presented, and commented on the lengthy process to address such a complaint.

Staff was directed to bring back a comprehensive rewrite of the animal control ordinances.
July 17,2007
Revisions to the animal control ordinances were approved to be put in ordinance form for a future council meeting. This included the increasing the number of animal control officers from 3 to 5.

Mike Loving reiterated the issues are in the enforcement of the ordinances, not the number of animals.
September 4, 2007
First public hearing of a comprehensive amendment of the animal services ordinance is held and passed unanimously. No limit on the number of animals is included.
September 18, 2007
Second public hearing on the animal services ordinance amendments passes unanimously as part of the consent agenda.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Government Theater

If you pay much attention to government in action, you get to see a lot of what is called Theater. These are actions and laws done mostly for show and to make people feel a problem is being handled. Close inspection shows they are ineffective, and often make the problem they were supposed to solve worse. Security theater is probably the most common example..

The City Council will have a bit of theater on the agenda on 19th. There is a proposed ordinance to limit the number of dogs one can have on a residential property. They are proposing a limit of 6 dogs, with exemptions for "recognized rescuers" (who can have up to 9 altered dogs), and one litter for 12 weeks. This is classic Government theater. This is not the first time this has been before council. We have followed this since 2006. This started because there are inconsiderate people that don't know how to care for dogs and think that a small residential yard is the proper place to have a puppy mill.

These people are already violating noise and public nuisance ordinances. There are probably health code violations. There may be zoning violations (incompatible business), etc..

When this was brought up the first time, we did some research and found very little support for dog number limits. The AVMA, in its model ordinance, does recommend special permits for breeders and similar businesses, but recommends no hard limits for private ownership. The key part of the ordinance is under owner responsibility and says "No dog or cat shall be allowed to cause a nuisance. The owner of every dog or cat shall be held responsible for every behavior of such dog or cat under the provisions of this ordinance." There are similar recommendations from the AKC, SFSPCA, and most other animal welfare groups. If you look at the discussions on animallaw.info and nokillnow, there are cases where fixed limits have been found to be un-constitutional limits on property and due process. The city does have a legitimate right to regulate nuisances, but other cases have shown that a certain number of dogs does not necessarily create a nuisance.

Now we come to the heart of the matter, the problem this theater is supposed to address. There are people that are being denied the peaceful enjoyment of their homes because some people refuse to properly care for their animals. In some cases, it is an inconsiderate breeder just trying to make some easy money. In other cases, it is one dog that is allowed to destroy property, strew trash and garbage, and generally create havoc because the owner is lazy and irresponsible. The people that are being irresponsible and creating nuisances today will not suddenly comply with a new law. We are not effectively enforcing what's on the books today so why will that change with an additional law we still don't have the manpower to enforce. In the end, it is all for show. It's just a case of Government Theater.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Budget Machinations

I am glad I withheld my initial reaction to the July 15 Council meeting When Chief Vasquez dropped his "20% pay raise" budget bombshell. Let me say before anything else, I am glad the officers got the raise. In a gosanangelo.com comment that day, I predicted they would get 7, maybe 10%, deservedly so. Where do I keep misplacing that Karnak turban?

The process was ugly, no two ways about it. I have spoken to most of Council since, I can reliably report "stunned" would be an understatement. This was not a reasoned negotiation, this was a parliamentary mugging. Only the Mayor and Councilmembers Farmer and Silvas spoke that day. Farmer took the time to do the math and state a dollar amount and expressed her shock that Chief Vasquez seemed to expect Council to act that day absent any prior notice. Mr. Silvas, the "new kid on the block" went into a statement which, while trying to offend no one, he agreed really boiled down to, "Why the heck am I hearing about this for the first time today?". Other members told me they had stayed silent because they were so angry at this "ambush" they did not trust themselves not to say something they would later regret.

It is a safe consensus, our public safety personnel got this raise in spite of, not because of, the Vasquez presentation.

I have watched the video of that meeting several times. Jerry Sea, of the WTOS and NAACP spoke for the raise, but mentioned "This is the best City Council we have ever had". I wholeheartedly agree, 30 years of seeing them come and go, some tried, some flat lied to us, and current Council is dealing with problems unfairly dumped on them. This I state plainly: Council AND staff (we also, in my opinion, have the best City Manager we've ever had) passed a small miracle in this new budget.

Council, by ordinance and Charter change, has made the budget process more responsible and transparent than ever before. This Council did not deserve the ambush Vasquez set for them. It is to Council's credit that they overlooked the political insult and gave our officers what they rated.

Understand, we have a significant change in local government. I was in the trenches against the "ol' boy club". Folks, that is done. The oldest "rats in the barn" are Mayor Lown and Councilman Morrison, each starting their third. They are part of the cats who ran the rats OUT of the barn.

Capital Improvements is one such; we moved this, with approval of the voters, from ordinance and procedure, to required by Charter. It is new, as is the SAPD "Meet and Confer" process. In the process, some time will be lost as the bureaucrats set rules by which they play. I am inclined to give all parties, City Manager, Police Chief, City Council, a good amount of latitude for the mechanics of making reforms effective.

All that said, the cops got a raise, the Council dodged a bullet, this is as good a chance as Council will ever have to say "OK, Rookie mistakes get a pass BUT...never again". God's honest, a lot of people spent a lot of time and trouble making these budget reforms come to pass. Not picking on SAPD's somewhat unique position with an elected Chief, EVERY city department needs to be put on notice, get your requests in on time, with numbers to support them, or you will be SOL until the next year's budget.