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December 19, 2006

Bad dog: Will the dangerous dog ordinance become Metro Council’s Moby Dick?

Editor’s note: The Metro Council was to act on the dangerous dog ordinance at its meeting Tuesday evening, which took place after LEO’s press deadline. Thus, if things got weird enough, everything in this story may be moot. That’s unlikely, though, judging from the politicking going on behind chamber walls for the last week or so, which — at least in part — is the subject of this treatise. Visit The Lip: LEO’s News Blog  for news about and analysis of the outcome of Tuesday’s Council meeting. Rex: Photo by Ben Schneider Is Rex the Wonder Dog a dangerous canine? It depends on his bark and his bite.There’s a classic scene from “A Christmas Story,” that peerless film that chronicles the deliciously American hope of the Christmas season, where a pack of neighboring dogs — the Bumpus’ — bursts into the Parkers’ house and savages their paunchy holiday turkey. In keeping with the inimitable irony of 1980s family comedy, they wind up eating Christmas dinner at a Chinese restaurant.Suspend your disbelief a moment and imagine this happening in Louisville, under the behemoth piece of legislation that was intended to hit the Metro Council’s desk last night, known simply as the dangerous dog ordinance (though it encompasses animal ownership). Imagine the Parkers called Metro Animal Services to report the gaggle of canines as a nuisance that had destroyed their property. What would happen?For starters, the Bumpus family would be in violation of the law — as it was passed out of the Government Administration committee last week — by having more than three dogs on a parcel of land less than a half acre. While we’re not sure about the status of rabies and other vaccinations, we can assume they aren’t properly licensed, because if they were, there wouldn’t be more than three of them.Each dog would be impounded by MAS and implanted with a microchip; the Bumpuses would have to pay to get each mutt out (and pay for the chip and all aspects of care during their MAS stay), though they wouldn’t get them all back — only three. Dr. Gilles Meloche, director of MAS, would determine whether they are “potentially dangerous” or “dangerous” dogs, after which the Bumpuses would be subject to increased license fees. They would also be required to confine the dogs and muzzle them when they’re around people. Oh, and no leashes longer than four feet.If the Parkers — or anyone else, for that matter — then reported the dogs for another nuisance in the next five years (anything from excessive barking or other bothersome animal noises to getting into the neighbors’ garbage to eating their turkey again to being kept too close to the street to chasing someone along a fence line), the Bumpuses wouldn’t be allowed to own a pet for two years from the date of the second conviction.There would be fines, from $50 to $250, for all those violations. The annual fee to license a potentially dangerous dog is $250. For a dangerous dog, it’s $500. None of this is to suggest that a mob of neighborly dogs stealing one’s Christmas turkey is acceptable social behavior, but Dog Politics is a grave business. It comes from a place where there is but little innocence left in owning a pet, which is pretty much where Louisville’s ordinance is right now, poised to do one of two things: A modified version will have passed last night and the city will wake up to the distinct possibility of lawsuits from at least three groups, or we’ll have to wait until late January to take it up again.It’s either a triumph muted by uncertainty, or another black night on the sea chasing Moby Dick.If it did pass, it’s likely the Democratic Caucus — frustrated by prolonged discussion and countless amendments — railroaded what was, as of Monday, a piece of legislation still containing “major flaws,” according to Council president Kevin Kramer, R-11. Councilwoman Cheri Bryant Hamilton, D-5, the ordinance’s sponsor and public persona, was working with the County Attorney’s Office to draft a replacement ordinance that addressed some outstanding concerns a handful of Democrats voiced at last Thursday’s caucus meeting — they didn’t get the new language until Tuesday morning, and were planning to offer it as a replacement for the embattled ordinance that night. Tony Hyatt, director of communication for the Democratic Caucus, said Tuesday afternoon that a substitute amendment wouldn’t contain major changes — mainly, it would strip breed-specific language from the ordinance. That is to say, after more than a year of debate, what came to a vote before the Council would have received all of one public reading. Council members would’ve had about six hours to review something those charged with debating its merits and legality couldn’t achieve in 13 months — though, in fairness, it was Hamilton who remained open to ideas on how to rectify the ordinance’s most problematic nuance, its specificity to seven canine breeds, classifying them as pit bulls. If it didn’t pass and was returned to committee for further changes, it’s likely that committee would be ad hoc, established specifically to spend the next month coddling this beast back to some measure of intellectual and legal health. It will remain the elusive white whale, while the base-level desire for control continues — there is a problem, the random attacks of vicious, dangerous dogs, that members of the Council ultimately, in reality, cannot fully contain.There is no question something has to change. Bill Patteson, spokesman for County Attorney Irv Maze, said that during warm seasons, three or four bite or mauling cases hit the Metro docket every week — he figures that’s only about 10 percent of such happenings. Maze himself has said he supports an expanded ordinance, one that would better facilitate prosecuting criminal cases. It’s a public safety issue. But why this? Is it a 104-page hammer jamming a tack into a pillow, an overhaul when a few tweaks would’ve done the job a year ago? Why has it gotten so weird, so political?This much is clear: Any ordinance that gets more than a year of debate, only to come before a full Council vote still incomplete enough to receive a rewrite the day before the meeting, has some seriously dedicated parties.One potential beneficiary is Hamilton, who proposed the ordinance last November after two people were killed in separate dog attacks in her district. She — and the Council as a whole — stand to gain, in certain realms of public opinion, for offering a strong (if late and belabored) response to profound displays of public savagery that left people here unsettled.But it won’t all play well for Hamilton, whose district suffers from an inordinate level of poverty. The ordinance will disproportionately affect the poor, who likely cannot afford the amount of land the law would require to own more than three dogs (we won’t argue why somebody needs three dogs, but a right to personal property could be argued). Though the fees for the average one-dog family — nearly half of American families have a dog — will be a mere $9 per year, the level of stratification in the law is expanded from what is currently on the books; if the MAS director says your dog is dangerous, for instance, you’re stuck paying $500 a year. MAS also stands to gain more power here, and in particular its director. Dr. Meloche’s authority will balloon if the ordinance passes in a similar form to the committee-approved version. More money will begin flowing into MAS immediately from the increased fees, which should help the agency improve its abysmal 15-percent rate of compliance with current licensing requirements by expanding, if slightly, its enforcement capabilities. That’s been the party line among Council Democrats, MAS and Mayor Abramson: Expanding the purview and fee structure of MAS will lead to increased compliance and enforcement. That logic doesn’t carry with a lot of people. How, for instance, does increasing fees and requirements for pet owners encourage them to get a license? One Republican proposal, to offer licenses either free or extremely cheap for the first year of the ordinance, has been rejected by Hamilton. However, compliance may be a side question to the greater one: Is MAS equipped to handle the increase in responsibilities? According to someone intimately familiar with the Council, MAS spokeswoman Jackie Gulbe told Council aides at a meeting last week that the agency couldn’t do an aggressive patrol in districts with major dog problems, like Hamilton’s, because they lack the officers and facilities to house the dogs they might pick up. Gulbe told me in an interview Monday she couldn’t recall the context of that statement, but said that when a large population of dogs needed to be picked up, “Yeah, we’re going to be strapped. Anybody would.” Gulbe wouldn’t say MAS is short of resources. Rather, she said since the dog ordinance came into public view last November, business has picked up simply because awareness is higher. That “culture change” line — that the social concept of pet ownership has changed recently, in light of increased displays of animal violence — has come up a lot lately. In the end, political expediency may carry the day. At the latest, it will be Jan. 25 that the Council will offer a full vote on the ordinance; it may have already. President Kramer said he’d like to see at least 22 votes to pass the ordinance. That would send a strong, bipartisan message to the city that the problem of irresponsible pet owners is one our legislators take seriously enough to find common, working ground, he told me.If a weak hack-job of an ordinance passes and the city is plagued with the open wounds of lawsuits — at least three were all but guaranteed last week — anyone whose name is still affiliated with it through the gnashing of teeth will work under its weight for a long, long time. If it turns out to be an unfunded mandate for MAS, look for Meloche to take heat, as well as the Abramson administration for not finding more money to bring MAS up to a working par.And if it’s in front of the Council a year from now, fouled by the stench of its own inadequacy like the first smoking ban, voters may take solace in the fact that Council elections are held every two years. Contact the writer at sgeorge@leoweekly.com