Despite the efforts of advocates in Tennessee and across the country, the city of Etowah, TN passed an ordinance on Monday night that regulates the ownership of pit bulls.
The issue initially came up when an Etowah resident brought a complaint about a neighbor’s pit bull recently having puppies, and the dog charging the fence of its yard. The resident backed his complaint about the dangers of pit bulls with “statistics” provided by the anti-pit bull website, dogsbite.org. The council held the first reading and voted on a pit bull ordinance that would strictly regulate the ownership of pit bulls. The issue was determined to be of such an urgent nature that the council also voted to reduce the number of required readings from three to two. The final reading of the ordinance was Monday, October 22.
When word of the proposed ordinance became public, a grassroots effort comprised of concerned dog owners formed to educate the city officials on breed specific legislation and prevent the ban from being passed. The group, Stop the Ban, made impressive strides in bringing awareness and local support to their cause. In addition, Sherri Cooper, the founder of the movement, took her concerns to the media. Sherri advocated for an ordinance that held irresponsible owners accountable regardless of the breed of dog they owned, and she gave the movement a personal touch, allowing others to sense, through every media outlet that picked up the story, the urgency and unfairness of the situation.
Unfortunately, the city didn’t want to be educated. Last week, the mayor advised the city clerk to discard any and all correspondence that came in on the proposed ordinance. In addition, city officials failed to return phone calls of those attempting to reach out to them. Finally, changes were made to the council meeting rules to restrict the number of people who could address the council and the time in which they could present their case.
The outreach efforts to gain support from pit bull advocates were extremely successful. Dozens of people from all over the state showed up at City Hall to support the effort to stop the ban from passing. They held signs, spoke with passers by, and got additional signatures for their petition. At all times, the large crowd was respectful and portrayed a positive image for pit bull owners, even after being informed that only 50 people were going to be permitted into the hearing room.
To be honest, I’m thankful those who came to City Hall with their faith in the democratic process but not permitted in the hearing room, didn’t have to experience the utter failure of democracy that those of us inside witnessed. The voices of Etowah residents were silenced by a city council who had clearly planned the events of the night, with little thought to the democratic process, fairness, or basic civility owed to those they represent. An overly heavy police presence was outside city hall, as well as inside the hearing room to intimidate residents. Our purses, bags, and pockets were searched, and our bodies scanned with metal detectors. Our representative, Sherri Cooper, who researched and worked on her presentation for two weeks, was stopped mid-sentence, told her time was up, after only a quarter of her statement was presented.
The first speaker on behalf of the ordinance spewed random “statistics” from dogsbite.org, with no reference or citation to any source, and the council asked no questions or inquired about the source of the information presented. Moreover, in an effort to encourage city officials to enact the proposed ordinance, the presenter stated that the pit bull ordinance which passed in Sparta, Tennessee in 2005 has been extremely successful for the city. You can imagine that this statement was received with surprise by pit bull rescuers, as we routinely receive requests for help with pit bulls at the Sparta Animal Shelter.
When the police chief introduced a city police officer as the second presenter in support of the ordinance, it became clear this was an orchestrated plan on the part of the city.
When an Etowah resident spoke out to question the statistics being offered by the supporters of the ordinance (in essence, doing the job of the city council who readily), he was forcibly removed by three police officers.
Finally, when Councilman Garwood, who ultimately voted against the ordinance, questioned his fellow council members how the ordinance was to be enforced, how breeds would be identified, and his concerns about the costs to the city, he was told by City Manager Gravley those things “would be worked out later.”
The ordinance passed with a 3-2 vote.
The ordinance becomes law 10 days after its signed. It is extremely important that owners of “pit bull-type dogs” go to City Hall and get a copy of the signed ordinance and carry the ordinance on your person for the next 30 days. As of the writing of this post, the ordinance had not been signed by all the city officials, and is not yet available for disbursement. Please touch base with the city clerk daily to be sure you get a copy once its been signed.
The ordinance will officially go into effect on December 1. Residents will have until that time to comply with the restrictions. I inquired of the city clerk as to whether dog owners could walk their dogs unmuzzled without being cited or without the fear of their dogs being seized in the 10 day period, and was told they could do this.
All dog owners should register their dogs ASAP. Less than 50 dogs are registered in the city, and the registration law has been in place for several years. Registration is $5 annually.
What passes for democracy in Etowah can now only be changed through the judicial system. Its up to Etowah residents to move forward and stand up for the rights their elected officials deprived them of on Monday night.