Sunday, December 7, 2014

UG commission debate on animal control ordinance draws big crowd

By Jim McLean
KHI News Service

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The Unified Government’s commission chambers were jam-packed on Thursday night.

It wasn’t a controversy over a multi-million bond issue that brought people out. It wasn’t even the final step in the approval process for the city’s “healthy campus” downtown redevelopment plan.

It was a proposed change in the way the city deals with feral cats, stray dogs and pit bulls.

“We can bond out literally $100 million for some long-term street improvement and it’s a two-minute vote up-and-down and no one is in the audience. But you start talking about a third dog and we’ll fill this room,” said Kansas City, Kan., Mayor Mark Holland.

Yes, you read that right, a “third dog.”

The commission voted Thursday night to allow Kansas City and other Wyandotte County residents to legally own three dogs. The previous limit was two. Residents also are allowed up to three cats.

Residents can apply for special permits and pay $300 to exceed those limits, but the commission must approve them. The UG’s legal staff recommended that permit decisions be handled administratively by the police department’s animal control unit. But the commission voted to retain that authority to ensure that decisions are made transparently and with adequate public input.

“I think the (current) process is working quite well,” said commissioner Jim Walters.

The commission also approved a “trap, neuter and release” ordinance aimed at controlling the population of feral cats roaming the city.

Some decisions deferred

City staff and interested parties spent months working at the committee level to craft a non-breed-specific vicious dog ordinance in part to replace the ban on pit bulls. But several commissioners and Holland had concerns about some of the proposed language.

“If someone is in my yard and I don’t want them there, I can’t beat them up or shoot them but my dog can attack them?” Holland said. “I have a problem with that language.”

The commission directed legal staff to rewrite parts of the ordinance and bring it back for consideration within 30 days. Commission members also asked staff to prepare an estimate of how much it will cost to enforce the new ordinance for consideration at their April budget session.

Commissioner Ann Brandau-Murguia said any change in the city’s animal control policy will require additional funding.

“Ordinances aren’t any good if we don’t appropriately fund the department to enforce those ordinances,” Brandau-Murguia said.

Pit bull ban maintained

Commission members were evenly split on the pit bull issue.

Commissioner Mike Kane said that when his daughter moved back to Wyandotte County after college she had to give up two pit bulls, which he described as loving, even-tempered pets.

“The pit bulls aren’t the problem, it’s the owners,” Kane said.

But others disagreed. Commissioner Gayle Townsend reminded members of the event that precipitated the ban, the mauling death of 71-year-old Jimmie Mae McConnell in 2006.

“For Mrs. McConnell there is no choice,” Townsend said.

Commissioner Jane Winkler Philbrook favored lifting the ban. She said the process of drafting the more comprehensive vicious dog ordinance had been a good one, with lots of public input.

“Believe me, there has been more cussing and discussing over this one thing,” Philbrook said.

Philbrook’s motion to lift the ban failed on a 4-4 vote.

Noting that members of McConnell’s family were in the audience along with members of her “church family,” Holland said the pit bull issue remains highly charged.

“That (McConnell’s death) is still fresh in the minds of many people,” he said. “There are a lot of people that are afraid of pit bulls, and I think we need to take that fear seriously.”

Brent Toellner, president of the KC Pet Project, understands that fear. But he says it’s misplaced.

“Banning breeds isn’t the solution,” Toellner said, noting that more than 100 cities across the country have recently repealed pit bull bans, including two in the Kansas City metropolitan area, Fairway and Spring Hill.

“Dogs of all breeds can be aggressive,” he said. “The most effective use of resources is to target aggressive dogs based on behavior and not on their appearance.”

Michelle Angell, the captain in charge of the police department’s animal control unit, said officers spend an inordinate amount of time investigating possible violations of the city’s pit bull ban. She said the average cost of responding to a complaint and determining the breed of a dog is about $1,000 per investigation.