Issue December 18, 2007

Viva la difference

A year ago, the dangerous dog ordinance smelled like something a responsible pet owner would put in a poopy bag. Now, maybe, not so much

Come with us now to Metro Council chambers, a year ago exactly, a crowded room bustling with energy of various hues, most of them dark. Confusion, expedience and partisan stubbornness owned the afternoon. And the early evening. And the late evening. Even the early morning, assuming that’s what you call 4 a.m., when the council finally adjourned after passing, largely along partisan lines, the so-called dangerous dog ordinance.

On that night, Dec. 19, more than a year after separate incidents in which rogue dogs murdered human beings in Louisville, a measure that appeared to be heading toward an outright breed ban had suddenly morphed into one whose scorn focused not on specific breeds but on dogs that have not been snipped.

In the 90-plus-page document being discussed that evening, the words pit bull (and other similar breeds) had been crossed out on the page in favor of “unaltered.” But the revised document, which had been through multiple drafts over the previous several months, had not reached the full council until about an hour before their meeting was to start, and so the mood in the room was about as pleasant as if the Bumpus dogs from “A Christmas Story” had ravaged all of the Christmas cookies in City Hall.

The meeting dragged on as council members hashed out one line at a time. Finally, after about half of the pages had been parsed, Democrats convinced Republicans to vote on the measure, with the promise of subsequent discussion in the new year. The meeting took 10 hours, and the ordinance passed 16-8, with Hal Heiner, R-19, the only crossover.

Two lawsuits quickly followed — one challenging the ordinance’s overall constitutionality, and another alleging that the Democratic caucus violated open meetings laws. The county attorney advised the council to re-pass the ordinance in January with the promise that doing so would make the open meetings lawsuit go away. It did not. Both lawsuits are pending.

Following a cooling off period, concerned council members, led by Kelly Downard, R-16, put their heads together to consider changes. After some false starts, the measure moved from the government administration committee to the public safety committee. Downard asked council members from both parties to sit on a five-member subcommittee to study the issue, and that subcommittee —Republicans Downard and Kevin Kramer (District 11) and Democrats Tina Ward-Pugh (9), Judy Green (1) and Vicki Welch (13) — met consistently through the rest of the year, interviewing experts from across a wide spectrum.

After poring over significant testimony, highlighted by a strong consensus that unaltered dogs are not necessarily more aggressive than altered dogs, the subcommittee, in consultation with Metro Animal Services Director Gilles Meloche, agreed on a number of changes. Those passed muster with the public safety committee, and the suggested revisions will go to the full council Thursday night, its last regular meeting of 2007.

Among key changes:
The revised ordinance still refers to dangerous and potentially dangerous dogs, but removes unaltered dogs from that category. It would allow the MAS director to impose fines on a sliding scale based on income; currently fines are fixed. It would remove restrictions on leash length for all but dangerous or potentially dangerous dogs, which would be limited to four-foot leashes, and it removes the word “permit” from the ordinance. Downard said that was an important change because permit, unlike the word license, implies that people don’t actually own their dogs.

The changes would also become less stringent on people whose licensed dogs get loose; currently those dogs are impounded, but under the proposed changes, the dogs would be returned on the first incident, followed by possible fines for repeat violations.

In an interview last week, Downard said the revisions are constructive and go a long way toward making the ordinance more levelheaded. He lauded his cohorts and noted that their work is a better model of politics — methodically gathering facts and considering them in committee before engaging the full council.

 Councilwoman Cheri Bryant Hamilton, D-5, who sponsored the original ordinance after the maulings occurred in her district in 2005, was not on the subcommittee but has been in close consultation with Downard and Ward-Pugh. She said Monday that she’s pleased with the results. The Democratic caucus has twice discussed the proposed changes, and it appears likely that the measure will gain full council support Thursday. MAS is also happy with the changes, spokesperson Jackie Gulbe said.

Even if the council signs off on the revisions, it is unclear what that means for the lawsuits. Jon Fleischaker, who represents the myriad groups challenging the ordinance, declined to comment on specific changes until the ordinance reaches the Mayor’s desk. As for the open meetings suit, Fleischaker said it cannot be resolved after the fact. The plaintiffs allege that the process followed in passing the ordinance last year was flawed, and that the public was harmed. The plaintiffs have requested that their attorneys’ fees be paid.

And so, while the dog ordinance has clearly come a long way in a year, chances are it has miles to go before it sleeps.

Contact the writer at
cstemle@leoweekly.com