Portage Common Council member Jeff Monfort says his least-favorite aspect of serving on the council’s Legislative and Regulatory Committee is dealing with dogs.
On Monday, the committee talked about, but took no action on, ways to add more fairness and efficiency to the city’s process of determining whether a dog, or any other animal, is dangerous or vicious.
It’s a process that’s fraught with emotion and hard feelings, Monfort said.
“When people are faced with parting with a pet, we’ve seen tears and threats and everything else,” Monfort said.
A particularly harrowing recent incident – in which the Portage Common Council overruled a Legislative and Regulatory Committee decision on a dog’s status, based on information that was not presented during a committee hearing – prompted City Administrator Shawn Murphy to ask the committee whether the process should be overhauled.
Among the questions to consider, Murphy said, are:
• Should the committee have the final say on whether a dog should be declared dangerous or vicious, without requiring the council to affirm the ruling?
• If a dog owner is not satisfied with the committee’s conclusion, what recourse should he or she have?
• When conducting a hearing on a dog’s status, should the Legislative and Regulatory Committee be required to have access to all pertinent records regarding the dog, including police reports of prior incidents involving the animal?
In November, Stephanie Bushor exercised her right, under city ordinances, to appeal to the Legislative and Regulatory Committee a Portage police officer’s declaration that her dog – whom she described as a pit bull, named Layla – met the ordinance criteria for being declared vicious, and therefore not allowed to live in the city limits.
After the hearing, the panel voted to declare the dog “dangerous” – a declaration that would allow the animal to remain in the city limits, provided that the owners met certain requirements, including buying a special license, carrying liability insurance and restricting the animal’s movements.
But city ordinances require the common council, and not the committee, to make the final decision.
When the matter came to the council on Nov. 20, the council ruled that Layla met the criteria to be declared vicious. That decision was based partly on a police record of a biting incident involving Layla and another dog, which was not presented to during the Legislative and Regulatory Committee hearing.
Council member Mike Charles, chairman of the Legislative and Regulatory Committee, said Monday that all pertinent records regarding Layla should have been presented to the committee during the hearing, before the matter went to the council.
But, asked council member Mark Hahn, if a committee member feels that he or she doesn’t have enough information to make a decision, can the decision be postponed? Or can the information be brought to the panel during the meeting and be considered, even if it wasn’t presented to members in advance of the hearing?
City Attorney Jesse Spankowski said he thinks all information should be presented to the committee, and should be procured during the meeting if it’s not given to members in advance.
And, if the dog owner is not satisfied with the committee’s ruling, state statutes provide avenues of appeal, either to the full council or in circuit court, Spankowski said. Either way, he said, it would likely entail another hearing of the appeal.
Any changes in procedures – including giving the committee, and not the council, the final say on whether an animal should be declared dangerous or vicious – would require tweaks in ordinances, Murphy said. And the council would have to adopt those changes.
No such ordinance changes have been drafted yet, but Murphy said the panel could see drafts of proposed revisions at future meetings.
Regardless of who makes the final decision on whether an animal should be declared dangerous or vicious, Monfort said it’s a vital matter of public safety – something that some dog owners don’t seem to understand.
“People seem to take for granted that all people are supposed to understand dogs or read dogs’ body language,” he said. “But you are responsible for what your dog does.”
Follow Lyn Jerde on Twitter @LynJerde or contact her at 608-745-3587.