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Editorial: BOC stonewalls ordinance work, advisory board again

Animal advocates have heard the talk, and they want their seat at the table. At Thursday’s County Board of Commissioners meeting, they were again turned away in their attempts at an official discussion on animal welfare issues in Fayette.

The Fayette Humane Society and other advocates made a lengthy presentation to the Board. It included a request for approval of three key items. First was a request to allow county staff to work with citizens on animal welfare issues, including the ordinances that were being worked on before they were stopped by Board vote in July. Second was the development of an animal welfare task force to develop a comprehensive plan for welfare processes and procedures. Third was the creation of an animal welfare advisory board to follow the work of the task force.

The comprehensive revision of the animal ordinances is the backbone of the work. For months, animal advocates, along with an expert attorney they paid for, and Commissioner Steve Brown worked on a draft set of ordinances with feedback from County Manager Steve Rapson, Animal Control Director Jerry Collins, and County Attorney Dennis Davenport. The goal was to have them ready for a Board vote in late July or early August, but that ended when they were blindsided by a vote to stop the work at the July 13 meeting.

“We were having a civil, well-informed discussion on the ordinances. It’s what you would hope for in any governmental jurisdiction you could possibly come up with, citizens who care, who are well-educated, well-versed on the issues coming together around an issue,” said Brown. “There was a great dialogue going back and forth. There was no animosity in those meetings. There were no harsh words and throwing things. They were great, civil meetings where we were looking out for the (welfare of the animals).”

The requested revival was put on the agenda by the advocates as a last resort. County policy allows for a citizen request for an agenda item when all other efforts have failed. Commissioner Brown asked that the stoppage of the work be reconsidered at the August 10 Board meeting, and he couldn’t even get a second for his motion that night.

“I would like to see that discussion start back,” said Brown. “I don’t know why we, as a Board, would build a wall between the citizens and the county government. It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”

It got closer this time, failing by a 2-3 margin with Commissioner Charles Rousseau in support, as opposed to the original vote with only Brown in favor.

“I’m supportive in terms of citizen engagement and input about where our ordinances are,” Rousseau said. “I have no problems with that.”

All the same, they still won’t get to have the ordinance work presented before the Board.

Commissioner Randy Ognio, who made the original motion to stop the ordinance, did not say much on the topic except to ask if they passed the motion to restart work, would it automatically approve an oversight board. It would not. The vote was simply to allow advocates and the County to get back to work on something that could be brought forward for a later vote.

Commissioner Charles Oddo maintains he did not vote to stop collaboration, in spite of his vote to stop the progress on the ordinance and his subsequent votes to keep it from being discussed again.

“I’m not going to vote to stop collaboration tonight, but I’m not looking to go forward with the ordinance the way it’s working.”

Even though he voted in support of stopping the work being done on ordinance changes, he still wants people to talk about changes to the ordinance.

“There’s issues within the ordinance that can be addressed, and I expect you folks to work with (Jerry Collins) and they’ll come to us and they’ll be addressed.”

Currently, the best avenue they have is a monthly meeting at the shelter hosted by Collins with the topics selected beforehand.

“Right now, what we have been told as staff, myself and Dennis, is to halt any work on the ordinance. The discussions that Jerry’s having in these meetings are subject matter that may end up turning into an ordinance,” said Rapson. “We’re not discussing ordinances. We’re discussing topics that are embedded in your ordinance, and those topics are not off the table.”

According to Brown, it’s debatable if they should even be allowed to discuss anything that could affect the ordinances.

“We had a motion that said the county staff can’t work with the citizens, and so that’s where we are for today, and that’s why we’re not having interaction,” he said. “Jerry technically is not even supposed to be interacting with these folks talking about ordinances because he has a formal, approved motion from the Board not to.”

The impression is the Board wants any work to be done on their terms and their time.

“You’re doing essentially what the Board told you not to do, and you’re doing it in a controlled way that only you can control and with very little citizen input,” said Brown.

Rapson offered to increase the frequency of the meetings to help get more topics discussed.

One of the biggest hold ups seems to be over the idea of an advisory board for the shelter. It would not have the final say over shelter operations. It would presumably, as its name implies, advise the animal control director on how to best run the shelter. One has to wonder why there is so much opposition to an advisory board or task force. It works well for a number of other county departments. On top of that, the Board would have to approve the by-laws, so they would have final say with who is on it and how it’s run.

“I don’t know why these people in this audience get the stigma that they can’t be worked with like a recreation commission and the transportation people and the library people or the planning commission,” wondered Brown.

There seems to be a fear that the group could override the animal control director, even though they would set the rules and it has worked well with those other departments.

“I don’t even have a copy of it. I saw it. I read it. I read it twice,” Chairman Eric Maxwell said of a draft of the ordinance he read in April. He did not like the wording about an oversight board, and that made up his mind on the entire ordinance. “I said I can’t support this, not as a package, and so I got rid of it.”

I find it particularly galling that a commissioner would throw out the whole ordinance because he disagreed with the language on one item, especially considering it was only in draft form. As Maxwell said, that was a copy he received in April. That wording was changed, as it was always a work in progress. He did not seek out an updated copy of the draft ordinance. He was specifically invited to attend the meeting in June with the advocates, Brown, Rapson, and Collins and declined. That would seem like a perfect time to discuss the language in question. All of the commissioners, save for Brown, did not respond to an offer from advocates’ attorney to discuss the ordinances.

It seems shortsighted to toss out the whole of the ordinance when the bulk of the ordinance was agreeable to all sides involved. Rapson said he agreed with Brown’s assertions that most of the ordinance was acceptable and that there were only “five or six meaty issues” that needed to be worked through. If that much of a massive document is suitable, why throw the baby out with the bath water? If you’re paving a street and you come to a bump in the road, do you just stop and start paving in a new direction?

As Chairman Maxwell is fond of saying, this is not the end, it’s the beginning of the work. Why not start with the finish line in sight already? Why not work to find common ground on those remaining issues? Why kill the progress altogether?

After the ordinance vote failed, Maxwell asked if anyone wanted to make a motion on the other two pieces of the proposal.

“I don’t think it’s worth even trying,” said Brown.

Rousseau tried anyway, making a motion to create the task force.

“It makes great sense to me,” said Brown.

The motion failed 2-3, along the same voting lines.

Turned away again, don’t count on the voices of the advocates quieting down any time soon.

“We have stayed till 1 o’clock in the morning to ensure you understand how passionate we are about our animals and our community,” said Karen Scannell, reminding the Board that the residents are at the top of the County’s organization chart. “Obviously by the numbers of meetings we’ve had and the turnout, you have a lot of concerned citizens and animal rescue group volunteers. We are not going away.”

By Christopher Dunn

Managing Editor Christopher Dunn has been with the Fayette County News since 2011, in addition to running Fayette Victory magazine. He is a graduate of Fayette County schools, as well as a graduate of Georgia State University with a degree in journalism. Follow him on twitter @fayettesports.