Monday, December 13, 2010

The long and winding road to Animal Advisory Reform

Thirty months ago, I went in front of the BOC to discuss the controversial animal ordinance passed in January of 2007. That ordinance passed in all of “sixteen seconds” without allowing any public reading of the proposed changes or more importantly – asking Gwinnett County’s pet owners for their comments on the new law.

With that vote thousands of pet owners throughout the county discovered that even being a responsible pet owner could lead to criminal charges being filed for such minor infractions as barking dogs, dogs tethered for short periods of time, no tags, and a number of other issues that micro-manage the care we provide our pets. Offenses that should have been “fix it” citations instead had pet owners facing losing their pets.

For their role, the solicitor’s office (who drafted and were charged with prosecuting the draconian bill) used the threats of jail and huge fines to intimidate pet owners into surrendering their family pets. Pet owners were being threatened with lengthy jail terms only further endangering their ability to care for their family members and their pets.

Instead of focusing our animal control resources on educating citizens on how to be responsible pet owners, our animal control resources and judicial resources were being directed towards prosecuting and impounding pets with the worst possible consequences leading to even more deaths at our brand new shelter.

How this revised ordinance became "law" is even more disturbing. This revision of animal ordinances in Gwinnett was passed solely on the recommendations of the county attorney's office with the blessing of Gwinnett's dysfunctional and highly secretive Animal Advisory Council.

Battle lines being drawn – nobodies right when owning a pet is wrong

At the June 24th 2008 BOC meeting each of the commissioner’s was provided with copies of the Animal Advisory Bylaws and copies of all Animal Advisory Council meetings held in 2006 drafting those changes.

One longtime advocate wrote this as her observation

“This shadowy group (AAC) in no way represents the citizens of Gwinnett County and in fact hides from us, refusing to post it’s meetings, agendas, or minutes on Gwinnett County’s excellent website, which is intended to keep Gwinnett citizens informed. I have attended many (AAC) council meetings and in almost every case I was the only non-member in attendance.

She further went on to report “The partisan inclinations of the core membership, combined with lack of participation from several members and complete isolation from county citizens, resulted in the council’s passage and the Commissioners’ subsequent passage of an animal ordinance of such breathtakingly draconian nature that it punishes the most minor infractions with thousands of dollars in fines and years in jail without the benefit of a jury trial. This ordinance has made Gwinnett a laughingstock among animal law specialists across the country, with several lawyers expressing the opinion that the law is unconstitutional on a variety of grounds. I sincerely hope our commissioners will expand the Council’s membership to be more inclusive and require it to abide by the spirit, not merely the letter, of Georgia’s Sunshine Laws.”

While each of the sitting commissioners received this information only then candidate Shirley Lassiter responded with “it would appear that holding any government meeting should be professional, open and convenient to all the citizens.”

We the Pet Owners of Gwinnett couldn’t agree more. We not only believe that these meetings should be open to the public but more importantly the communication between pet owners in the community and the commissioners should be transparent and it is not.

Over the past thirty months our organization has worked diligently in presenting an “Animal Advisory Reform Resolution” that corrects these communication and transparency issues. Unlike the Animal Ordinance that was passed without public input our organization reached out across the county with full disclosure on all the issues involved.

We sought out the opinions of pet owners on issue that related to responsibly owning pets. We fought off numerous attempts by the AAC to drop these issues from AAC’s agenda. In the end these discussions generated the issues that were in serious need of reform. In the end we found common ground and compromise that served the citizens and gave a voice to responsible pet owners in Gwinnett.

The proposed revisions to the Animal Advisory Council Bylaws were drafted, discussed, argued and negotiated for close to a year now. To date, there has been nothing but support from the citizens on the final resolution that passed during the April 20th 2010 AAC meeting.

This resolution has been voted on and passed, the time for negotiation and discussion at this level is over. For animal control and the Gwinnett Police Department to hold these changes hostage six months later to protect the status quo of “catch and kill” is un-conscionable. It is NOW time to bring these issues to a vote in front of the commissioners who WE elected to oversee our interests.

Paranoia strikes deep – into your life it will creep

During the last AAC meeting the issue of reforming the Animal Advisory Council once again reared it’s ugly head. Shelter Director Lt. Respess brought up “new” concerns explaining “Animal Control and our superiors have concerns about the way the resolution is written”. With an air of pettiness animal control’s concerns focused on two areas, one “they” wanted to add a condition that “no one could serve in an advisory position who had violated any animal ordinance”. This stipulation is not only insulting to the citizens who would step forward but to the Commissioners as well, who I would hope would exercise good judgment and appoint people to this committee who they themselves have vetted. Appointments to the advisory council should NOT require approval from animal control or the Gwinnett Police Department especially in light of oversight implications.

One of many major malfunctions of the current makeup of the AAC is that anyone who disagrees with current (failed) policies at the shelter runs the risk of losing their position as an advisor. This stifles created innovation and leaves us with a process of simply defending the status quo. The current process of animal control and/or the Gwinnett Police Department having 100% control over who gets appointed or is allowed to stay on the AAC limits the free exchange of ideas.

The second area of newly created dispute was the reorganization that eliminated several obsolete positions on the AAC and replaced then with slots that addressed the county’s primary issues with animal control.

Animal control sought to keep Gwinnett Humane Society position while sacrificing a position for the rescue community at large. For several years now Gwinnett Humane has held a position on this council and yet open records have yet to offer any program or insight offered that would benefit the rescue community at large. Nothing has been proposed that would assist in building the critical partnerships with the rescue community but instead focuses on self-preservation of their own needs.

The number of pets going to rescue is down by over thirty percent since the new shelter opened. New leadership that understands the importance of building partnership with those who rescue dogs and cats is critical to our long-term success in reducing the carnage. This won’t happen without a voice that understands the significance these partnerships offer.

Building partnerships with rescue community will result in fewer animals being killed and return a substantial cost saving to the county as well – it costs MONEY to end a pet’s life – it costs NOTHING to send that same pet to rescue. This, the new feline interest position and individual representatives from each of the commissioners were areas that were never open for compromise.

Obviously, change is needed to dramatically turn around our failing shelter. Pouring money into a broken process is NOT a solution – change in thinking is. Several positions were removed with even more new positions created – those groups who felt disenfranchised would still have an option of lobbying for one of these openings.

The time for talk, the time for negotiation is over – we have a passed resolution that must be passed on to the BOC for an up or down vote.

People speaking their minds – getting so much resistance from behind

With thirty months invested in this reform effort “We the Pet Owners of Gwinnett” is past the point of offering further compromise. To hold these changes and the resulting citizen oversight hostage while thousands of dogs and cats are being killed is simply not acceptable. We are NOW reaching out to the community to support the “Animal Advisory Council Reform Resolution” with an up or down vote.

Our constituents have strong feelings on moving forward with building a more humane community for our homeless pets. We are solid in our support of building a No Kill community. Those feelings are being realized with the growth of No Kill Gwinnett.

Our supporters come from all walks of life, your church, your neighbors, your friends in rescue and in many members who work in and around Gwinnett County government. We may not agree on all the issues but there is a common bond that there is no moral foundation for ending an innocent dog or cats life simply because it’s convenient and because we can.

Rather then focusing on resolving the serious issues we have at animal control, far too many dogs and cats being killed, we end up with a broken partnership with the rescue community and a lack of professionalism in leadership that has resulted in serious morale issues that look the other way. The result is a process that does nothing but protect a failed model of status quo.

A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say hoorah for our side

The battle hymm's being sung, we are all tired of all the dire sideshows of personal ambition and goals rift with excuses and blame that changes nothing and allows the killing as usual to become our standard animal welfare policy. We are tired of being harassed and intimidated simply because we choose to include pets as an intregal part of our family unit.  Pets are NOT a nuisance issue - they are a quality of life issue.
We the Pet Owners of Gswinnett have presented a positive package for professional advise on animal welfare issues moving into the future. The makeup of this team would consists of citizens passionate about representing ALL points of view with a new focus where it’s needed most – lowering the number of dogs and cats killed at our tax supported shelter.

The new advisory council will be able to investigate not only life saving programs but cost saving programs as well. The new advisory council will be more responsive to not only pet owners in our community but there will be a dramatic improvement in the communication between citizens and their commissioners on animal related issues.

More importantly, the commissioners will finally have direct communication with the advisors they appoint and not be limited with ideas or proposals that have been screened by animal control.

The makeup of the Animal Advisory Board is in serious need of new blood which will include active participation by local pet owners and private volunteer rescuers who have for too long now been silenced from this process.

While the current makeup of the AAC may be powerless to do anything more then protect their own self-interest “WE PET OWNERS” have the power of electing commissioners who protect not only our families interests but our rights to responsibly own and protect our family pets.

There will be a meeting with the Board of Commissioner’s on Tuesday December 14th at Gwinnett’s Judicial Center. The meeting starts at 2:00 PM and the public is permitted to speak at the end. It is imperative that our community’s pets be represented as well as Gwinnett’s other important issues.

Those of you who have something to add to this dialog are encouraged to write out your thoughts that can be presented via email or presented to the commissioners for consideration during this public forum.

Look forward to seeing you there.

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