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Say Chow (or ciao) to those $1,000 fines

 

Baltimore’s $1,000 fine for letting a dog of its leash is, effectively, a thing of the past — if even that.

A city council committee yesterday — saying the amended penalty was passed by mistake — approved lowering the fine to $200 on a first offense, and promised that, for all 35 of the $1,000 tickets issued between the beginning of April and May 8, violators will have to pay no more than $200.

The new three-tiered fine — $200 for first offense, $400 for a second, $600 for a third — still requires approval by the full council, but little opposition is expected.

In opening the hearing, at which more than a dozen dog owners testified, Council Member James Kraft said, “This fine, very frankly … was a mistake. We were amending provisions of the law that were dealing with cruelty to animals and we increased penalties because some of these penalties were very old penalties. They weren’t acting as deterrents.

“Inadvertently, because that section had a lot of other provisions in it, that thousand dollar fine went across a much broader spectrum than we knew.”

Upon learning of what they had done, Kraft said, the council took steps to ask that the fine not be levied against violators.

Nevertheless, 35 $1,000 citations were handed out by the city’s office of Animal Control, with support from the police department — 23 of them since April 28.

“For those who have said that maybe this was a fundraising measure on behalf of the city, please be advised it clearly was not,” Kraft said.

Kraft pointed out that the $1,000 fine, accidental as it was, was receiving support from a majority of those he was hearing from, and he repeatedly reminded dog owners that, regardless of the fine, if they were letting their dogs off leash in public, they were breaking the law – and were not the “law-abiding,” “model citizens” several portrayed themselves to be.

“In the deluge of phone calls and emails we have gotten,” he added, “…we have had as many people saying leave the fine at $1,000 as we’ve had saying it’s ridiculous … There is a serious division in this community over this issue.”

The council committee also approved an amendment, sponsored by member William Cole, that gives the city’s Department of Recreation and Parks the authority to establish off-leash hours in designated areas of parks.

The committee also approved lowering the increased fine for an unlicensed dog from $250 to $100. (it was formerly $25.)

Judith Kunst, one of the leaders in the effort to have the fines reduced, pointed out that it can take a month or more, after paying for a dog license, to receive one from the city.

Kunst called the increased fines “an insult to the citizens … I vote, I pay taxes. I’m kind of like your boss,” she said. She concluded her remarks with a visual presentation. “This is what you are trying to prevent,” she told the council, holding up a dogfighting photo. Then she held up a photo of her own dog, Molly, wearing a pink visor and matching pink boa: “This is who you’re hurting.”

Several in the audience spoke of the importance of dogs getting their exercise, and socialized, making them less likely to become problem dogs.

Baltimore has only one dog park, in Canton, established with private donations. The first city-funded dog park, at Latrobe Park in Locust Point, is expected to open later this summer. Mayor Sheila Dixon, at a groundbreaking ceremony for the Locust Point Dog Park, said the city was looking at building as many as eight dog parks in the years ahead. No new dog parks have been announced in the seven months since then.

While both Kraft and Cole spoke of heavy support for the $1,000 fine, no one with that view testified at yesterday’s hearing of the council’s Judiciary & Legislative Investigations Committee.

One speaker from the audience, John Kyle, of the Bolton Hill neighborhood, spoke of the need for leash laws and of the problems loose dogs can cause, but even he said he supported the reduction of fines.

All other speakers considered the fine exorbitant, and several said they took it personally. “You have said,” Bill Roberts told the council, “if you have a dog, don’t live in Baltimore.”

How dogs and their walkers help keep parks safe was another common theme. Roberts noted that discarded condoms and needles, homeless people, drug parties and car break-ins have all decreased since Wyman Park Dell developed into a gathering point for dog people.

“We are your eyes and ears every morning and every night out on the street,” another speaker said. “A thousand dollars? That feeds a family of four for a month, and you’re writing it off like it’s just another fine.”

Many said they’ve noticed a decline in the number of people and dogs in city parks since the new fine went into effect, and some questioned whether the law was leading to fewer adoptions from local shelters, and more crime in the parks.

Several spoke of moving out of the city and moving to more “dog friendly” locations.

“People are scared of being fined. It’s  making people reluctant to adopt. People are scared away across the board.”

Jackie McGee, a real estate agent who lives in Federal Hill and who has regularly volunteered at Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter (BARCS), was one of the first to get a $1,000 ticket, as she walked her two dogs in Riverside Park.

“It …  was extremely distressing to be treated that way. I really wanted to pack up my bags and move,” she said. McGee said she supports a fenced off area for dogs at Riverside. “If there’s room for football, softball, basketball, a tot lot …  there should be room for dog owners.”

In response to Kraft’s repeated reminders that those who let their dogs off leash are lawbreakers, Joann Dolgow, when called to give her remarks, retorted that other “lawbreakers” include those who marched for civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights and against the Vietnam war.

Dolgow, who regularly takes her standard poodle to Patterson Park, said she suspected crime has gone up there since fewer dogwalkers are using the park. Councilman Kraft said city statistics showed that was not the case.

City Animal Control director Bob Anderson, called upon by council members several times to give his views, said he supported lowering the fines, but warned that extreme deterrents are necessary to handle the problem of “Rottweilers, pit bulls and chows running around in alleys,” an apparent reference to vicious dogs.

Those opposed to the increased fines turned over to the council petitions with more than 1,600 signatures calling for the fines to be reduced.

Council member Cole’s amendment allowing for the establishment of off-leash hours and areas within some parks– a cheaper and quicker alternative to dog parks – was supported by most in the audience.

Kraft said that he, Cole and Council member Ed Reisinger had sent a letter to the Recreation and Parks Department, notifying them they had the authority to establish such hours.

“We’re hoping that very shortly, these hours will be established,” he said.

The committee did not address the fine for unscooped dog waste.  While that law is rarely enforced, the penalty will remain $1,000.

(Photo: This smiling Chow Chow — not believed to be vicious –was seen at the Maryland SPCA’s March for the Animals; by John Woestendiek)

Comments

Comment from Anne-n-Spencer
Time May 13, 2009 at 4:13 pm

Well, good. It’s good that they realized they’d made a mistake, it’s good that they’re not wanting to use this as a revenue generator, and it’s good that they want to do something about cruelty to animals. We’re certainly moving in the right direction. Let’s see what happens next.

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