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Vicious dog ordinance put down

Assembly members give wide range of reasons for voting against measure

Posted: Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly voted down a controversial vicious dog control ordinance Tuesday night agreeing that it would be difficult and expensive to enforce.

In turning thumbs down on Ordinance 2008-01, however, the assembly left the door open for a future ballot measure seeking voter opinion on whether it is time for the borough to assume overall animal control powers.

Ordinance 2008-01 would have defined a vicious dog as one that had bitten a human. The measure's sponsor, Assembly President Grace Merkes, of Sterling, said the ordinance was narrowly focused on biting dogs and was not meant to be a full-blown animal control law.

She said she had talked with authorities state troopers, fish and game officials, animal control shelter officers and others in attempt to find consensus about what to do about vicious dogs.

"Fish and Game seems to think it is a public safety troopers issue. The troopers say they are so underfunded, they have more important day-to-day issues to take care of," Merkes noted. "They have said if there was an order issued by the court, they would have to enforce the order."

She said the Soldotna animal control officer understands the problem but is only bound to take care of Soldotna's area, though he believes about a third of the animals they handle are from the borough.

She also said Alaska statute allows second-class boroughs to license, impound and dispose of animals by ordinance.

During public testimony, Tim Colebath, of Nikiski, a founder of Alaska's Extended Life Animal Sanctuary, told the assembly that concerns he raised at the Feb. 5 meeting about its enforceability had been addressed.

"I am 100 percent behind this ordinance," he said. "It is high time the borough take a step forward and begin addressing the dog problem here on the peninsula."

He provided the assembly an example of a form specific to reporting dog bites that doctors, hospitals and troopers could use to secure a judge's order to seize an animal, thus providing a contractor with legal backing. He also urged the assembly to add provisions requiring rabies vaccinations for all pets.

George Pierce, of Kasilof, opposed the dog ordinance. He noted past voter rejection of a boroughwide animal control law.

"We spoke. It would be nice for you to listen," he said.

Lisa Mackey, of Kasilof, asked what it would cost taxpayers to determine if a dog was vicious.

"I went to hand my dog a piece of meat before and it nipped my finger," she said. "Does that clarify him as vicious, or just aggressive?"

Mackey said she agreed that vicious dogs should be controlled, but said the borough was "asking for a lot of trouble" if it has someone going on private property and removing dogs.

Vicki Pate, of Nikiski, said she opposed the ordinance, pointing out that it would use general fund money, meaning taxpayers in cities that already have dog control would pay, too.

"Then you get into another can of worms of how you compensate them for the things they've already paid for," she said.

In the end, the measure proved all yip and no nip, losing 6-1 (two members were absent). Reasons expressed by assembly members for opposing the measure ranged across the spectrum.

Paul Fischer, of Kasilof, said voters had dumped an advisory vote on animal control in 1998. Little has changed since, he said.

"If we are going to do this, let's have another vote that is not an advisory vote. Let's make it a real meaningful vote outside the cities to see if they want dog control," Fischer said.

He also objected to the lack of estimated cost and said it was "a foot in the door" for overall animal control, something his constituents did not want.

Assemblywoman Milli Martin, of Diamond Ridge, said she understood why Merkes proposed the measure, but agreed with much of Fischer's comments.

"To me, there are too many questions that have not been answered," especially about borough liability, she said, adding that it should go back to the voters.

Assemblywoman Margaret Gilman, of Kenai, called it a Band-Aid approach to the real issue of animal control.

"Either you are doing animal control or you are not doing animal control," she said. "While I appreciate the intentions ... it's just not workable."

As written, it was only partial animal control that left the borough with no real stick for enforcement, she said. Furthermore, she said there was no requirement for rabies shots, and the only way to enforce that was through licenses that is, through animal control powers.

Assembly Vice President Pete Sprague, of Soldotna, a former mailman and experienced runner and biker who has faced aggressive dogs, said he was initially supportive of the ordinance, but as questions mounted, he changed his mind.

"Unfortunately, I really don't think this is the vehicle, the way it is written at this time, so I will be voting no," he said.

Assemblyman Bill Smith, of Homer, said he would also like to see a ballot measure tied into a rabies vaccination program.

Merkes said she has talked to people who she said would rather have seen a whole animal control ordinance.

"Personally, I would not like to see that, and that's why I brought this shorter version, if you will, of some kind of idea that I had that maybe could work," she said. "I still kind of believe it could work, but I can see there are not enough votes to make it work."

She said it seemed a problem for which no one wanted to take responsibility.

Hal Spence can be reached at hspence@ptialaska.net.

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