“Stalling.” “Unnecessary cruelty.” “Politics as usual in Palm Coast.” “Political B.S.” “There is going to be a special place in HELL for these people/sorry my mistake, they just cannot be human. ♥” “Would like to cage that group at the council meeting.” “This whole ordeal hurts my heart. Who’s being human and who is the real animal?” “No one wants to say this is Animal Cruelty, but you need to ask yourself, isn’t it?”
The fate of a 40-pound dog called Cooper and twice declared dangerous–the city condemned it to die in February–is turning into an unexpectedly virulent political liability for the Palm Coast City Council, even though the council is largely powerless on the matter, which is dictated by state law. But the council’s own administration has not been helping, projecting a hard line in defense of its decision to kill the dog as if it were also the council’s, when that’s simply not the case.
The mayor and council members are at the center of bitter attacks on Facebook, in emails and in council appearances from the dog’s advocates, who want the dog’s life spared and Cooper sent to a refuge for dangerous dogs. The council was not involved in the decision to kill the dog and has “no jurisdiction,” according to its attorney, either to decide to kill it or to exile it.
To the extent that the council has any say, its members have repeatedly said over the past few weeks, as two of them did again last week, that they support Cooper’s advocates’ wishes: they would rather see the dog’s life spared as well. But state law doesn’t give them leeway to make that call. A judge could rule in Cooper’s favor. And the case is in the hands of a circuit judge now.
Yet when the city attorney filed a 33-page response in the case last Friday, plenty was argued about why the city’s animal control division carried out its responsibilities properly, why the city’s hearing officer did as well, why the dog owner’s due process was not violated and why Cooper should be killed.
Nothing was said about the wishes of the city council.
The silence about the council’s perspective appears to directly contradict last week’s council meeting, before the response was filed (it was filed three days late), when Mayor Milissa Holland again explicitly sought to make the council’s position clear–if not for the public, then for the judge: “Let me just state for the record,” Holland said. “Last time this was discussed we did say that when the judge comes back with his ruling and if the judge so deems the allowance of the dog to go to this facility, that this council would be very supportive of that. In fact we’re encouraging that.”
It’s as close as the council could come to saying that it would rather not fight the case, but that it had no other option under the law. And if a judge could rule differently, then it would embrace that decision.
“There was no ambiguity, there was no uncertainty,” Holland said in a brief interview today.
Holland expected that position to be reflected in the response in the court case. It was not.
She’d also written City Manager Jim Landon her concern that the administration was not reflecting the council’s position adequately: “This story continues to get away from the facts and we’re not doing anything to get ahead of it,” she wrote Landon. “It is coming back on your Council. What is the plan here as this is becoming increasingly frustrating.”
There is no plan, other than for the administration to continue doing what it’s been doing: fighting the case to justify the city’s administrative position–which is, in fact, a strong position–without heed of the council’s wishes beyond the strictly legal parameters of the case.
While the administration has done a convincing job of defending the city’s position, it seems equally clear that Landon, as has been the case on several recent occasions, is severely misjudging the political fallout (the way he did regarding the mishandling of the mayor’s now-defunct radio program at taxpayers’ expense or when he proposed a $200,000 self-advertising sign for Palm Coast on an I-95 overpass). The city administration is focusing exclusively on making the case for Cooper’s death, making its legal position synonymous with the council’s preference.
When it had the chance to reflect the council’s wishes that there should be a different outcome (a wish even Landon shares, based on his statements to the council), the city has stayed mum.
Landon on Monday wrote back Holland: “I agree that all of the misinformation and lies are very frustrating. We have told the other side of the story. It does not stop the false campaign. I believe engaging this group just escalates their efforts, but if you have any suggestions you would like us to implement just let me know. Hopefully the judge makes a determination soon.”
Holland thought she was making that suggestion at last Tuesday’s council meeting when she placed her statement on the record, as a message to the judge.
The administration’s position is the more startling because it has repeatedly (and accurately) conveyed the point that under state law, the council may not interfere in determinations that end with the declaration of a dog as “dangerous,” or with a determination of death. But while trying to insulate the council from responsibility, the administration has instead muted its sympathies for the dog and its advocates, thus making it seem as if the council was pushing for the dog’s death.
“This is not an easy situation and it’s very disheartening,” Holland said last Tuesday. “I can tell you that we have tried every single angle and all of us have inquired within several times, trying to figure out a resolution that we could be involved within the state statute. I have had conversations with both Sen. [Travis] Hutson and Rep. [Paul] Renner, talked to both of them, about the quandary that this has put us in locally and the challenge that has brought against us. I’ve even talked to our lobbying firm about this as a mechanism of us to also advocate on behalf of changes in the state law.”
Council member Vincent Lyon, an attorney, was just as clear, agreeing with the city’s legal position, but also elaborating on a political alternative. “We do not have a legal venue in which to do this, to make a choice to send the dog somewhere else,” said Lyon, who just three years ago was himself involved in a high-profile defense of a dog the county sought to declare dangerous (the county eventually lost). “It’s the legislators who can do something about this. So write to them, call them, try to make a change, I agree that the law is too strict and needs to be changed. But we can’t do that.”
Last Tuesday, after Renee DeVincenzo, a Cooper advocate, criticized the county for “digging your heels” and accused it of playing favorites (Council member Nick Klufas’s in-laws’ dog was involved in an attack on another dog, whose owner collapsed after the encounter and died of heart failure within days), City Attorney Bill Reischmann again summarized the history of the case and defended the city’s position.
“Because it is the second incident the statute provides for a specific process. It provides for specific consequences,” he said, reading the language of the law, which is clear: if a dog previously declared dangerous attacks and causes severe injury (or a death) to a human being, the dog “shall be” immediately confiscated by animal control, quarantined for 10 days, then killed, absent hearings or court actions. “And the verb is shall,” Reischmann said. There was a hearing in this case–an “adversarial hearing,” Reischmann specified–and there was an appeal to circuit court.
Much of the case has been “adversarial,” though not through the city’s doing: both the dog owner and its advocates have showed few scruples about spreading false or inflammatory information, Dottye Benton, the dog’s owner, never informed the city–as she was required to, by law–when she took ownership of Cooper earlier this year, when it had already been declared dangerous in Port Orange, and last month, when Cooper bit a person for the third time as Benton was visiting the dog at the Humane Society, Benton attempted to hush up the incident, resulting in a pending felony charge against her and further undermining her credibility. Those elements, also part of the record, could end up hurting her case more than animal control’s decision–by tipping a decision in animal control’s favor. The council has had nothing to do with that, either.
“City does not have control, we don’t tell judges what to do,” Reischmann said.
Circuit Judge Terence Perkins two weeks ago ordered the city to answer Cooper owner Dottye Benton’s contention that her due process rights were denied at the original animal control hearing on the case, and the dog’s life should be spared.
“What I’m hearing and what we have been hearing is please send this animal to this location where it can be safe and the community can be safe. Unfortunately the law does not give the city of Palm Coast that option,” Reischmann said. “So if this council were to direct staff or my office to send this animal to the facility, I guess, I’m not sure, it’s in the Tampa area, we would be directly violating, directly violating our obligation, the city’s obligation, to follow state law. It’s important to understand the state statute is what’s controlling here, we are following the state statute.” He said if the city went ahead with the advocates’ wish and the dog again bit someone, the city would be liable.
Landon said if Perkins were to return a decision that does spare Cooper’s life, the city would go along. “We’re not going to appeal that,” Landon said. “If a judge decides, they can do something different, that’s what we’ll do.”
But that too, was nowhere in the city’s answer in the court case.