After hours of emotionally charged testimony and intense debate Tuesday night, the Watertown Common Council narrowly passed new restrictions on owners of pit bull breeds and other dogs deemed vicious by the city.
The ordinance changes, which also raise the monetary fines for people whose dogs break the city's laws, were passed five to four. Council members Fred Smith, Mark Kuehl, Steve Zgnoc, Augie Tietz and Robert Stocks voted for the changes, while members Emily McFarland, Ken Berg, John Coughlin and Jim Romlein voted against it.
The ordinance change would ban pit bulls and dogs deemed vicious from multifamily buildings in the city, with the exception of duplexes and privately owned condos. It also bans any individual or family that owns a pit bull or a dog deemed vicious from owning more than two dogs. Currently the city allows individuals to keep up to four dogs in the city, regardless of the breeds. So if passed, a family which owns a pit bull or dog deemed vicious and has two other dogs would be breaking the city's laws and would be required to move or give up at least one of the animals.
Other provisions in the law state owners must keep dogs in kennels or fenced in when outdoors, warning signs must be placed on homes, dogs would have to be spayed or neutered after they are 5 months or older and owners would have to pay a special registration fee and provide proof of liability insurance of at least $100,000.
Most of the controversy around the changes has centered on the breed specific legislation aimed at all pit bull breeds and pit bull breed mixes. The ordinance defines pit bull breeds as American pit bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier or any dog displaying a majority of physical traits of one or more of those breeds. Owners and other citizens have asked that the restrictions be placed on the dogs that have shown aggressive behavior, not just on certain dogs because of their breeds.
Smith said the Watertown Safety and Welfare Committee has been working on drafting the ordinances changes for almost a year and they have heard over and over again it is not the breed. However, Smith said the process of breeding seeks to accentuate specific characteristics over time and he said pit bulls were bred for aggressiveness, tenacity, to fight and to kill.
"Those characteristics are in their DNA. They do not surface to the same extent with every dog, but you do not overcome decades of breeding with training. They are dangerous dogs ... I would submit to you, based upon everything we know, and many of those who came forward about the traumatic experiences they have had," Smith said. "Pit bulls bite. All breeds bite, the difference is when you are bitten by most breeds you treat the bite at home or go to the emergency rooms. When pit bulls attack you go to the trauma center if you are not dead on the scene ... We have a problem that cries out for public safety to be addressed. This ordinance seeks to do it ... and we would be extremely well advised to pass it."
Romlein said it is a tragic situation whenever someone is attacked by a dog, regardless of the breed. He added in everyone of the cases the dog that attacked was not under the control of its owner. He added the council's intent should be to make owner's responsible for their dogs, not target specific breeds.
Coughlin agreed with Romlein and suggested the ordinance be taken back to the safety and welfare committee for further work.
"I want a safe Watertown just as much as anyone siting here. But to specifically put it all on the back of pit bulls ... I cannot approve this the way it sits," Coughlin said.
During the public comment section 47 individuals spoke to the council about the ordinance change. Most were against the breed specific language, but arguments were made for both sides.
Watertown resident Seth Rehbaum spoke to the council and urged them to defeat the automatic restrictions for pit bulls. He said the rules should be applied uniformly to all dogs across the city and said to determine individual breeds of dogs is difficultly and would make enforcing the changes extremely hard for the city.
Suzanne Harms, of Watertown, spoke in support of the ordinance. She said she was walking in March of 2010 when she was attacked by a pit bull. She said she was lucky that she was wearing a heavy coat that helped protect her after the dog knocked her over. She added this is a breed of dog that the city needs to be concerned about.
East Troy resident Jeffrey Borchardt also spoke at the meeting and told the council his 14-month-old son, Dax Borchardt, was killed by two pit bulls in Walworth County earlier this year.
"They attacked the baby sitter. She did everything she could to save my sons life, but they attacked her, the hand that fed them. I am in support of this bill. I've read it in its entirety. If it was in place in Walworth my son would still be with us today," Borchardt said.
Sean Van Derel, a member of the board of directors for the Watertown Humane Society, urged the council not to pass the legislation. He sad the council has heard a lot of sad stories that night and a focus has been on public safety but he urged the members to take a look at the larger picture. He said if the ordinance would go into effect the humane society would be swamped with unadoptable dogs whether they would be surrendered or abandoned. The city pays the humane society, Van Derel said, to provide animal services to Watertown and this legislation would increase those costs for the taxpayers.
He added many of the information and facts being provided by the council and people in the audience were not true.
"I am disappointed tonight that this legislation can pass on no facts, no evidence and information from a Facebook blog. I hoped it would be decided by the use of logic and intelligent thinking," Van Derel said.
Kuehl told the council this issue is much different than what they usual deal with. He said they often buy park land, approve contracts and budgets, but he said this goes beyond those things and deals with life and death.
Kuehl said the legislation might not be perfect and if it needs to be tweaked in the future that is possible, but he urged the council to take action Tuesday night.
"We need to ensure the quality of life in this community. I don't think its perfect, but this needs action tonight and again in two weeks," Kuehl said.
McFarland said she was concerned that much of the vicious dog discussion has been based on a report generated by the police last year. McFarland said when breaking down the report she discovered there were on average 39 dog bites a year over the time studied.
"We are spending a lot of time and money on something that occurs 2 percent of our time. I'm not saying these incidents aren't valid and sad and tragic. If we look at the overall big picture, it is worth some argument I want policy that will benefit the city and use its resources in a good way," McFarland said.
She said she was also concerned about a lot of the broad subject language in the ordinance and said a lot of the enforcement is left up to the description of the police officers. She asked if the city would be providing any special training to its officers to deal with the dogs.
"I find this to be very invasive as well. As a government bureaucracy its not our place to tell people what they can do to their own homes. The other thing I want to mention is, I want to represent the voice of people in the first district and ... they are overwhelming against this," McFarland said. "We can also look at the effect this could have on economic development. We are looking at landlords losing tenants, business owners moving out the city. Potential owners can also see how far we are willing to go, like telling citizens they have to close their windows and use four foot leashes. That's a problem."
During the debate Berg spoke to the council and said he has had numerous dogs of different breeds throughout his whole life. He added his daughter recently bought a boxer and pit bull mix that is one of the most caring and affectionate animals he had ever seen.
Berg made a motion to amendment the ordinance change to remove all the language that would specifically target pit bulls.
"I'm in favor of the importance of responsible dog ownerships. I really have problems with the ordinance as it is. There are merits to parts of it ... What I would like to suggest as an amendment to change the portion relating to the high risk dogs (pit bulls) and to delete that," Berg said. "We will make the dogs that are deemed vicious dogs earned the status based on behavior. That is moving in the direction of holding dog owners responsible. It makes this a fair piece of legislation and more better likelihood of being enforceable and it will encourage people who have pit bulls to treat and train their dogs to make sure they aren't deemed vicious. I can't buy into the logic of putting dogs into separate categories."
Smith urged the council not to remove the breed specific legislation from the ordinance. He said it is at the very heart of what the city is trying to do with the legislation.
"My questions is what about the victims for the irresponsible dog owners? This will remove one of the significant portions that will give the tools to protect our city to the department that does that and to our chief that has told you this is what we need here in the city, our job is to protect victims and to do that before they become victims and that is exactly what Chief Tim Roets asked to have the opportunity to do," Smith said. "Do not eliminate a key component that will allow us to protect the innocents, the Dax Borchardt's that are in Watertown right now and have no way to protect themselves. You leave ticking time bombs across this city, unregulated with numerous irresponsible owners. It will be a miracle if we don't have a tragedy in this city all too soon."
The amendment to remove the breed specific language was defeated five to four. With Smith, Kuehl, Zgonc, Tietz and Stocks voting against it. McFarland, Berg, Coughlin and Romlein voted for it.
The council will have to vote on the ordinance changes for a second time at its next meeting before the ordinance would go into effect. The council also debated possibly adding in a grace period or a grandfather clause for owners who live in multifamily housing or have more than two dogs. The council was asked to submit suggestions to the city attorney and the safety committee will meet before the next council meeting to examine any recommendations.
In other business the council:
In other business the council will vote on:
-- Approved a second reading of an ordinance change to allow businesses and restaurants to use sandwich board advertising and to mount menus on the sides of buildings.
-- Approved a second reading of an ordinance to allow restaurants to put up cafes on sidewalks in the city.
-- Approved a first reading of an ordinance to prohibit parking at certain times on both sides of Gateway Drive from the east curb line of High Road to the south curb line of Air Park Drive.
-- Approved two ordinances on their first reading to regulate parking along South Third Street between Dodge Street and 100 feet south of East Main Street. The ordinances would change the parking limit from two hours to 30 minutes. Smith said business owners in the area asked for the changes to open up spots for customers.
-- A first reading of an ordinance aimed to control weeds, grass and brush inside of the city. Romlein said the new ordinance raises the cost for property owners who let their weeds grow to the point where the city must come in and cut the weeds. The previous fine was $100. The new rules sets a $500 fee for three hours of weed cutting and $250 for every hour after that.
-- A resolution to lower the level of fluoride in the city's water supply from 1 milligram per liter to 0.7 milligram per liter.
-- A contract with MSA Professional Service to do engineering work for the rehab of Wells No. 6, 9 and 10 for $32,500.