County airs concerns about animal control penalties, tables ordinance

Published 4:10 pm Friday, April 16, 2010

Concerns about the criminal penalties and some unspecific provisions in a stronger animal control ordinance prompted Polk County commissioners Monday to table the ordinance and seek legal advice.
Commissioners created a committee to strengthen the existing animal control ordinance so the county can better respond to animal cruelty and other cases of irresponsible pet ownership.
The proposed new ordinance sets clearer requirements for ensuring adequate food, water and shelter for animals. It also restricts owners from keeping a dog tethered or chained for 24 hours straight, and does not allow collars that rub or puncture skin.
The new ordinance creates a spay and neuter program so the county can pursue grants for the program, adds new provisions to better address feral cat colonies and automatically raises animal cruelty violations to higher offenses and fines.
The ordinance also would create a committee to hear appeals from pet owners who are cited with civil citations. Criminal violations could be appealed through the court system.
County commissioners said they feel comfortable that the new ordinance would not result in unreasonable violations if enforced by the countys current animal control officer Michael Herman. They said Herman does a great job of assessing situations and determining whether citations or charges are warranted.
Herman indicated that criminal misdemeanor, or even felony, charges are usually associated with animal cruelty cases, while most of the violations he sees would result in civil citations with fines.
However, commissioners said someone else may be in charge of enforcement in the future and they must carefully consider the potential legal ramifications of the new ordinance if it is enforced strictly.
Cindy Walker, chair of the county board, said she has a beagle mix that often wanders off her property. She said shes concerned she would face a criminal misdemeanor if a neighbor complains, and added other pet owners in the county would face the same.
Walker also questioned why the criminal penalties are included in the ordinance if such penalties already exist in state law.
“I dont want to swat a fly with a boulder,” Walker said. “We need to have (the ordinance) strong enough so people take it seriously, but … Im just worried people will request a warrant for a misdemeanor if their neighbors dog goes off the property. I would like to see it stay a civil penalty.”
Commissioners Tommy Melton and Warren Watson said they dont want neighbors who dont like each other to take advantage of the law to settle disputes.
“Im concerned that we get the penalty part of this right and in a meeting or two well have had a chance to get with an attorney,” said Watson.
Commissioners also said they would like to consider strengthening the section of the ordinance on tethering after hearing concerns from citizens during a public hearing.
Citizens, including some who worked on the new ordinance, said the revised ordinance is a “good start,” but it could be stronger, particularly on tethering. They said the time allowed to keep dogs on chains should be significantly reduced.
Look for more coverage on this issue in an upcoming edition of theBulletin.

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