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Monday, July 7, 2014

Council facing more questions than answers with breed-specific legislation

A crowd gathered Monday night as the Public Safety Committee considered revising the city's breed-specific requirements for dog ownership/Pat LaFleur

The Fort Thomas Public Safety Committee, along with Mayor Mary Brown and other members of City Council, met tonight to discuss the city’s current breed-specific legislation restricting Fort Thomas residents from owning pit bulls and “pit-looking” dogs. While each committee member called it “a good discussion,” the committee took no action but to schedule a third Public Safety Committee meeting on the topic, further extending the process.

The committee, which consists of members Tom Lampe, Eric Haas, and Jay Fossett convened before yet another crowded city council chambers Monday night to hear City Administrator Don Martin’s report on other types of dog-related regulation, which the committee charged Martin to compile at the conclusion of last month’s meeting.

“The goal of this meeting,” Councilman and Public Safety Committee Chair Tom Lampe began, “is to review other legislation. We ask everyone (in the crowd) to be respectful of the process.”

Martin began the meeting by outlining for the committee other types of municipal legislation that regulate dog ownership, and it quickly became clear how the problem of “nuisance,” “dangerous,” or “vicious” dogs — as various cities generally refer to problematic dogs — has led to a wide variety of legislative solutions.

According to Martin’s report, cities vary in their classifications of what makes, for example, a dog a “nuisance” vs. “dangerous” or “vicious,” as well as on how those categories of dogs are regulated and/or how their owners might be penalized for their dog’s problematic behavior. Cities also vary, Martin said, on whether or not they include breed-specific language (as Fort Thomas’s current ordinance does) and which specific breeds, if any, are categorized as problematic.

The uncertainty was immediately clear among committee members and other council members present on how exactly to process all of the information they have received from residents, experts, and other government officials on this issue.

Councilman Haas maybe summed up the confusion best by saying, “We’ve been inundated with factual information.”

Trying to bridge the gaps between the many sides of this debate, he also added, “The goal here should be allowing the citizens of Fort Thomas to own any kind of dog they choose while still maintaining the same level of public safety.”

Exactly how to do so, however, is where the answers became cloudy for the committee.

“I don’t know if there’s a clear cut answer here,” Lampe said, not long after Martin concluded his report. 

The primary concern facing committee members is how to balance contradictory data and testimony regarding the perceived safety of Fort Thomas residents around certain breeds of dog.

“It’s not just whether or not people are, in fact safe,” said Councilman Roger Peterman“It’s also whether people feel safe."  

Supporters of the current legislation pointed to studies showing that pit bulls categorically demonstrate more aggressive behavior than most other breeds of dog. Fort Thomas resident Preston Manning told Council of a CDC study that found consistently above-average levels of aggressive behavior in the breed over a 20 year span. Manning also presented a petition calling for a continuance of the current legislation, which has received roughly 270 signatures. 

Demonstrating the clear division of perspective on the perceived safety of the breed, though, Tammy Nolan, Fort Thomas resident responsible for facilitating the construction of Fort Thomas’s dog park in Highland Park, also reported to Council a petition currently circulating online, which has received over 200 signatures from residents who oppose the current legislation.

Even among council, which facts should be considered seemed to be up for debate. Councilwoman Lisa Kelly pointed to municipalities and states all across the country veering away from breed-specific language in regulating dog ownership over the last 12 months. “This is a national trend,” Kelly said.

“But those are just the facts that you just used,” Lampe retorted. “I don’t think we should make decisions like this based on national trends or a political movement.”

Adding to the complexity of the issue, Ohio resident Debbie Weeks spoke to Council with her pit bull Buddy, who is also a federally sanctioned service dog, by her side. In her case, federal law is at odds with the current city ordinance if she decides to visit Fort Thomas.

For Councilman Fossett, the issue is one of enforcement. “Why do we even have an ordinance that we don’t enforce?” he asked, pointing to the number of residents who already own dogs banned by the current ordinance, but have not seen the repercussions. 

Ultimately, much to the chagrin of the crowd, the committee concluded to reconvene, to further consider the information they’ve received. 

“We’re not going to rush into any decision,” Lampe said, echoing his comments from last month’s meeting.

“When we have a some sense of direction,” Haas added, “we will move forward.”

With the apparent complexity this issue seems to have presented to City Council, it remains to be seen when exactly that will be.

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