IM Council’s ‘hands are tied’ with ordinance
By LINDA LOBECK
IRON MOUNTAIN – Pleas for action to stop a dog from being destroyed on Oct. 14, under the city’s vicious dog ordinance, were made before the Iron Mountain City Council at Monday’s meeting.
But the council members said that their hands are tied once the case has been heard by a judge and the order to have the dog destroyed has been set.
Council members did agree to discuss in a committee the current ordinance and some possible changes that could be made. Specifically they talked about how to allow for more discretion by the judge when a violation of the ordinance occurs and the case goes to court.
Mayor Bruce Rosen noted that most of the council members had been contacted by different people regarding Roxy, a dog that bit a woman in July and is scheduled to be destroyed.
“I take this seriously and have been a dog owner all my life – I don’t take this lightly. I’ve also gone through the ordinance and feel that the city of Iron Mountain has a pretty good ordinance. It’s our charge as a city to ensure the public safety. A dog that bites without provocation or trespass falls under this ordinance,” Rosen said.
City Attorney Gerry Pirkola noted that from his standpoint, the city ordinance is self-explanatory. The court then makes a determination on what will happen based on the facts of the case presented.
But City Councilman Dale Alessandrini felt that the ordinance really doesn’t allow for any other result other than destroying the dog when it goes to court.
“The judge has no other latitude with this ordinance,” Alessandrini said. “You bite and you die. I don’t think it’s fair.”
Rosen called the council’s attention to the penalties in the ordinance where that decision by the judge is “based on the preponderance of the evidence presented.”
That evidence, which was provided by the police department officers who responded, is what the judge used in his determination of whether to put the dog down, said City Manager Jordan Stanchina.
Pirkola said that the police were alerted when a report of the bite was made.
“That generates an investigation and the officers noted when they were there that the dog was barking aggressively and the rope the dog was tied up to extended into the alleyway,” Pirkola said. “The dog appeared very aggressive, the officer said, and that’s what was reported.”
Emily Ritsema of Iron Mountain talked to the council on behalf of Roxy asking them to rescind the ordinance and save the dog from being destroyed. She said that she had a petition signed by 6,300 people asking for the dog to be saved.
“There were severe circumstances that led to the dog biting someone,” she said. “My husband has deemed that the dog is not vicious and he is retired as a K-9 handler with the Michigan State Police. I’m asking you to rescind the ordinance and make it retroactive to save this dog. We have an offer of adoption for her to live in a sanctuary in Texas. This ordinance needs to be changed. It needs definite changes,” Ritsema said.
Rosen disagreed with rescinding the ordinance noting that it has done the right thing -to protect its citizens.
“A decision is made on the facts presented and the facts alone in this case. We can’t rescind anything,” Rosen said.
Pirkola agreed that it wasn’t likely rescinding the ordinance and making it retroactive would affect what’s going to happen.
“The case has gone through the court already and been adjudicated,” Pirkola said.
Councilman Bob Moraska felt that the ordinance doesn’t give the judge much latitude other than putting a dog down and as written is pretty restrictive.
Pirkola agreed that there wasn’t a lot of discretion in the ordinance if a dog bites someone and is unprovoked. And as the ordinance is written, once the report is filed, it goes to the court.
Moraska suggested looking at the language and making some changes so that there is more discretion available to the judge on a case-by-case basis.
Ritsema said that they have a place available in Wheaton, Texas specifically for dogs that bite. It’s a sanctuary where they are kept away from the public and can live out their lives other than being destroyed.
Stanchina felt that this was the right ordinance to have for the city, but a small group or committee could get together and see where some changes could be made to it.
Alessandrini felt that they could do one of two things- get rid of the ordinance and follow state law – or change the ordinance so the city doesn’t say whether a dog lives or dies.
“Why do we have to be the gatekeeper for everything?” Alessandrini said.
Stanchina said that the ordinance, when it was adopted by the city in 2005, was in response to concerns about wolf hybrid dogs in the city.
“This is why we have this ordinance – because of an attack concerning that type of dog,” he said.
He suggested that the council put together a committee and get some ideas down concerning what could be changed in the ordinance. Once that is done, it can be brought back before the council for action.
Councilman Colin Jacobetti felt that the ordinance the council has in place is well-written and allows for the judge to use common sense when making a ruling.
“As far as this ordinance, I don’t want to see it thrown out. There is opportunity for the owner to appeal the decision built into it,” Jacobetti said.
During public comment time, Ritsema asked who decides whether there was provocation that caused the dog to bite someone. She asked whether a board could be put in place with a trained animal behaviorist to observe dogs in these situations.
“When the police responded, there were heightened tensions. It was the same day as the dog bite with the same 91 degree temperature day. The dog was also pregnant and without water or shade. You are punishing the dog for the owner’s decisions that day. We are working with a national group right now to file a stay in this case to stop from destroying Roxy,” Ritsema said.
Diane Luczak of Pine Mountain Road in Iron Mountain, told the council that if the bite had been handled by the animal control officer she believes this would have had a different outcome.
“He would have recommended that the owner make some changes to remedy the situation and prevent something from happening again. And he would have checked on the situation to make sure that it was done,” Luczak said noting that she has to be the executioner of the dog. She is the manager of the Almost Home Animal Shelter where the dog is currently lodged.
Stanchina said that the budget for the animal control officer for the county was cut and he is not available every day.
“Plus our ordinance supersedes animal control jurisdiction,” Stanchina said. “When a dog bites someone, our ordinance is brought into action. The appeal doesn’t come to the council since it’s already gone through the court.”
Vicki Tavonatti, the owner of the dog, also appealed to the council noting that this is a therapeutic dog for her.
“She’s my life. I made a mistake with the rope going into the alley,” Tavonatti said. “She deserves a second chance. I just want my family back.”
Virginia Feleppa of 1136 Crystal Lake Blvd. in Iron Mountain told the council that she felt that the ordinance was a good one.
“The judge has further discretion on a case,” Feleppa said.
“I think the city needs this ordinance so people can walk and bike safely. There are consequences when an owner doesn’t take these precautions to protect their animal or other people. Human life is more important than animal life. I feel that once a dog is vicious, it’s going to do it again. Having an animal has consequences. I think you can give the judge more leeway in a decision, but not throw out the whole ordinance,” she said.
Linda Lobeck’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.