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Mayor Craighead vetoes animal control ordinance

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Craighead said the matter would be back before council at the Sept. 7 regular meeting.

Several citizens expressed their opposition to the ordinance at the council meeting Tuesday night. They were concerned because of its inclusion in an Order of destruction in some cases and its vague descriptions of what would lead to a dog being euthanized.

Maureen O’Nell, a Davidson County resident who works in Lebanon, spoke before council, informing them of her disapproval of three sections of the ordinance which she felt needed to be revised. Sections 4, 7 and 9, she said, involved vague language and a biased interpretation of a dog that is being a nuisance.

According to section 4 of the ordinance, no one is allowed to keep or house an animal that is dangerous, or has displayed a “dangerous nature” and has been deemed a dangerous animal by the City Judge.

Pam Black, who also spoke before council in opposition to the ordinance, felt this language was vague and needed to be revised. Black presented a petition of more than 100 signatures from citizens who oppose the ordinance and its wording. The ordinance’s section 9, they felt was considerably disturbing.

Section 9 said that if a City Judge deems an animal to have a dangerous nature, or to be involved in continuing noise or roaming problems over a six-month period, he can instruct the Lebanon Police Department to request that the District Attorney’s Office petition the Wilson County Circuit Court for an Order demanding the seizure of the animal and that it be subject to an order of destruction.

Melissa Richards also opposed this last section and told the council, “I do not want to live in a city that supports the death penalty for dogs.”

Section 7 also refers to an Order of destruction, indicating that the LPD and animal control will issue warnings and citations if they find an animal to be in violation of the ordinance, which will then be used as evidence in future incidents occurring over a six-month period that could show cause why the animal should be subject to an Order of destruction.

The council members tried to assure the citizens that this ordinance was being misrepresented and that their only goal was to create more responsibility among pet owners and for them to be held accountable for the actions of their animals. They reiterated their point that they were not out to euthanize the animals without just cause.

“Whoever has read this and thinks they know what it says, doesn’t know what it says,” said Ward 5 Councilor Haywood Barry, in regards to those who opposed the ordinance. “I would not have voted for it if a City Judge could put a dog to death.” Barry is a former General Sessions judge.

“There are a lot of responsible owners out there, but there are a whole lot more who aren’t,” said Ward 1 Councilor Alex Buhler. “It’s not the dog’s fault, but a human life is more important to me than any animal out there,” Buhler added.

Black and O’Nell made sure the council did not misunderstand them and said they did not value a dog’s life over a human being. They did not think the language in the ordinance was clear and that the offenses were not defined adequately to include euthanizing a dog in the punishment for violations.  Black said she respects life, whether it is a dog or a human, but that she does not value the dog’s life over a person’s.

Ward 3 Councilor William Farmer pointed out that the law has due process and that a dog will only be euthanized after its case has gone through the proper channels.  According to the ordinance, a Circuit Court Judge is the only authority that can issue an Order of destruction per the request of the Police Department and District Attorney’s Office. “We’re trying to get responsible owners,” Farmer said.

Mayor Philip Craighead released a letter from Thompson regarding the language of the ordinance and his understanding of it after the council’s meeting. “Section four again does not define inherently dangerous,” Thompson said in his letter, “It needs to be clearer.”

Also, according to Thompson’s letter, the District Attorney can only request an Order of Destruction if a dog attacks a human and causes death or serious injury under State law.

“This ordinance should be referred to the city attorney for a more complete legal opinion. The ordinance as written seems undefined and subject to vast interpretations. If it is deemed vague, it will only lead to enforcement issues and legal challenges,” Thompson said.

Black felt the ordinance would definitely cause enforcement problems, as well as tie up the police department and court systems with the violations, when they could be focused on more pressing matters. Richards suggested fining owners and requiring them to have animal training but not to euthanize the animals.

The council approved the ordinance by five votes with Ward 6 Councilor Kathy Warmath passing her vote. Warmath said she felt the language needed to be revised and clarified as well. “There were too many instances where a dog could be put to death,” Warmath said.

Specifically, Warmath pointed out that a dog that is in violation by roaming or barking is completely different from a dog that has bitten a citizen and caused serious harm. Warmath said she advocated fining and issuing citations over euthanizing an animal.

“Eventually the owner would want to do something because they’re being cited,” she said.

Staff Writer Patrick Hall may be contacted at phall@wilsonpost.com.

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