Those words hang behind the dais of the County Board of Commissioners, but on Thursday night they felt awfully empty.
This is the first time I’ve ever waded into local politics with a column, but I’ve never been so blown away by the hypocrisy I’ve witnessed at a government meeting. With so much talk about the need for the public to get involved and frequent references to tapping into the wealth of talent and knowledge of residents, you would think that the County would be thrilled to see an overflow crowd eager to participate. And yet, tacked onto the vote to approve the new euthanasia and management policy for the animal shelter, they showed that the talk about seeking the public’s input is empty.
There were so many residents at Thursday night’s meeting that some had to be turned away as they were already skirting Fire Marshal rules. They were pet owners, animal advocates, taxpayers, and concerned citizens. They wanted their voices to be heard because the animals can’t speak for themselves. These weren’t empty words from the crowd. They practice what they preach. They open their homes and their checkbooks, they spend countless hours volunteering at the shelter or with other local groups. They are the ones in the trenches doing everything they can to save lives.
And still, my critique is not with the decision to approve the policy itself and stop the ordinance and more with how it was made. I expected that the policy would be approved. While many didn’t like the thought of putting an expiration date on the dogs at the shelter, the reality is our animal control is understaffed, underfunded, and in a woefully outdated building. Director Jerry Collins has to work with what is given to him, and what is given to animal control has traditionally been little. That much was acknowledged by countless opponents of the policy. Something has to be done to help make their job easier, and I see where the policy is coming from.
What dropped my jaw to the floor is that, in a cowardly act after the public had their say and the floor was closed for discussion, the policy passed with the added clause to kill the animal ordinance in progress that has been a labor of love (and no cost to the County) for so many. With no chance for rebuttal, they put the ordinance down. They knew they intended to do just that, whether under advisement of staff or on their own accord, and they were sure not to let the public know what they were up to.
If they were being open that they planned to kill the ordinance, they would have had plenty of time to let the key players know. I sat in on some of those meetings as a private citizen. My wife and I volunteer with the Fayette Humane Society and were interested in the process of updating an antiquated set of ordinances, especially in relation to animal cruelty.
In those meetings with County staff present, every indication was that the ordinance was still moving forward to be discussed publicly at a future meeting, likely at the next meeting. Instead, with a clause, all of that work was for naught.
Many in the crowd were in shock. What just happened? They killed the ordinance without discussion. Can they do that? Yes, they can act of their own accord without public input. Why would they do that? That depends on who you ask.
There were moments that would make you want to laugh if only to not pull your hair out. “Spay,” the commonly-known term for neutering a female animal, was repeatedly replaced by “spray” by County staff. Staff had no definitive answer for how old the shelter building actually is. While many have pegged it as early as 1983, the best they could come up with was 2001. I couldn’t tell you the exact date yet, but I can personally tell you that 2001 is not correct. My family adopted a cat from the shelter in 1991.
What followed the public comments were a number of tone-deaf, deceitful, or ignorant (or some combination thereof) comments from some of the commissioners.
Commissioner Randy Ognio, himself having made the motion to approve the policy approval with the added ordinance death sentence, made it clear that even the proposed policy was too generous with regards to the 75 percent capacity threshold.
“I don’t know why (Animal Control Director Jerry Collins) thinks he can handle it at 75 percent,” said Ognio. “If it was me I’d shoot for 50 percent so I’d have more flexibility.”
Commissioner Charles Rousseau chastised the large crowd for not showing up during budget discussions.
“You missed it by about 60 days,” he said of the budget talks. “That’s an admonishment.”
He repeatedly asked of Brown, the lone opponent, “Where was the budget request?”
But there was nothing being asked of the budget, and if there was, as Philip Doolittle pointed out in online discussion, they’re about 300 days early for the next budget cycle. To try to tie it in to budget talks is a complete misdirection. The ordinance work being done was to ensure animals are humanely treated within Fayette County.
As Brown said, this was simply the groundwork being laid. Talk of a needed new shelter building is nowhere close.
“I will tell you it’s just as important to make sure you have your foundational documents, your ordinances and policies, in the proper place,” he said. “You can have the Taj Mahal of animal shelters, and, if you don’t have the right ordinances or policies especially relating to animal cruelty, then you’re only doing half the job still.”
My favorite comment came from Commissioner Charles Oddo, in explaining why he was voting in favor of the policy and against the community-initiated ordinance work. He seemed to have missed the whole point of the evening and the months of work that went into the ordinance, saying, “Nothing is stopping any of these groups from getting together and looking at the situation and bringing suggestions to the County.”
Except there is something major in the way stopping them. Since January of this year, those groups he referenced have been working together to bring an important piece of work before the County, and it was squashed before it could even reach an agenda. That was said after 90 minutes of public comments from animal advocates, volunteers, and lovers who poured out their hearts. They shared personal stories of the dogs and cats they have loved at the shelter and the ones they had saved only because they were allowed to live well past 30 days.
“I’m astounded that I’ve got a colleague who says now we need to get everybody together and talk about this. We’ve been talking about this damn thing since January with all these groups. I cannot believe you would say that,” said Brown. “That just kills me, Chuck.”
“To hell with all of y’all from January,” Brown said of his colleagues’ mindset. “We’ll start all over again, and we’ll find some people who agree with what we want to do.”
I’ll have to borrow some of the words my amazing wife had prepared for the meeting, but didn’t need because so many others stood up. She is the reason I’ve gotten involved with the fulfilling work of fostering cats.
“Clearly this was not based on the wishes of your constituents, who you seem to have forgotten who you are supposed to be representing. I don’t know how you all will sleep tonight. You had the chance to do the right thing,” she said. “Fayette County — where quality is a lifestyle — unless you’re an animal.”
For an affluent community that people think is forward-thinking, or at least in step with modern times, it’s hard to always see it that way when you have a group of commissioners that will ignore the voice of the people.
“In God we trust”
Those words also hang behind the dais. After Thursday night, it seems it might be more appropriate if it reads “God help us.”