Commission looking at writing vicious dog ordinance instead of breed-specific bans
By ROBERT PIERCE
• Leader & Times
“The question you need to decide is what’s in the best interest of Seward County,” county counsel Dan Diepenbrock said at Monday’s commission meeting.
After listening to information from both Diepenbrock and pit bull owner Gerald Valentine, and from board members themselves, the commission considered that issue, and in the end, it voted narrowly 3-2 to repeal a resolution passed in February banning the possession of pit bulls.
Diepenbrock said that resolution was brought before the board because an original ordinance adopted in 1991 included grandfather provisions for dogs that existed at the time that law was adopted.
“Since 1991, pit bulls have been banned in Seward County unless the animal existed at the time of the adoption of the resolution or within 10 days after the adoption of the resolution,” he said.
Diepenbrock said all the new resolution did was remove the grandfather language.
“We published this resolution, and that got the attention of Mr. Valentine,” he said.
Diepenbrock did say breed specific bans have been upheld in many court cases across the country.
“When a city or a county adopts a resolution or ordinance that bans breed specifics, the ones that I’ve read about are pit bulls,” he said. “Pit bull owners have filed suit against the city or county alleging that type of resolution is unconstitutional.”
Diepenbrock said court rulings continuously say that because no one has a fundamental right to own a dog, a local government need only show a rational basis between a resolution and the end wanted. This, he said, is when public health and safety are at issue.
“I feel confident the resolution – as adopted – would withstand any challenge,” he said.
Diepenbrock cited statistics showing pit bulls are responsible for more deaths than any other breed, but he said the number of pit bulls is small compared to other breeds.
“The significance of these numbers is you’ve got relatively small numbers of a breed of dogs committing a statistically large percentage of the fatalities,” he said.
Diepenbrock also said the commission needed to decide if there was a reasonable risk to the community if the ban was lifted.
After Diepenbrock spoke, Valentine presented his case, starting with 500 signatures he gathered for a petition against the breed ban. He said he witnessed in four hours at Blue Bonnet Park, 11 strays unattended, none of which were pit bulls.
“We have business owners, we have older women that have the dogs,” he said. “These are pets. Dr. (Brett) Jones wrote a letter giving his opinion of breed specific legislation.”
Valentine also talked about a vicious dog ordinance in effect in Elkhart, written by attorney Bill Graybill.
“He said ‘Breed specific legislation cannot be enforced, and it would cost a massive amount to enforce it,’” Valentine said.
Valentine said the City of Topeka overturned its ban on pit bulls last September, saying it costs about $30,000 to $50,000 beyond budget to enforce breed specific legislation.
“Topeka overturned it,” he said. “Wellington, Kansas, overturned it. Edwardsville, Kansas, overturned it. Breed specific legislation didn’t work in any of them. It’s unenforceable.”
Valentine talked about the loyalty of pit bull owners and said laws should emphasize ownership rather than breed.
“They love their dogs,” he said. “Their dogs haven’t broken any laws. They haven’t broken any laws. Responsible ownership is the key to any dogs. Responsible ownership is the way to go, and a vicious dog law is a fair law. It’s a fair law, and it can be enforced.”
Commissioner Ada Linenbroker, who voted against the repeal, however, questioned Valentine’s love of pit bulls, referring to a court case involving the breeder in the 1980s.
“I located newspaper articles from the summer of 1985, and on July 30, it seems that you were having pit bull fights at your property,” she said. “The sheriff went out and did arrest you, and you were charged with fighting and promoting fighting of pit bulls.”
Valentine defended his innocence on the case.
“Do you believe in the judicial system that you’re innocent until proven guilty?” he asked Linenbroker. “I was never proven guilty because I never went to court. It never went to court, and I was never tried because (then Seward County Attorney) Linda Trigg didn’t have a case, and she knew she didn’t have a case. So she pleaded me out. I signed the agreement. I kept to it. I’ve been arrested one time in my entire life. That was in 1985 by Seward County police. I was never convicted of it. It never went to trial because she didn’t have evidence to prove it. If I’m innocent until proven guilty maam, I’m innocent.”
“Whether you pled guilty to it or not, you’re still listed with all these other people that were arrested,” Linenbroker said. “I just have a problem when you standing there acting like you’re this big dog lover, and then you were arrested for having these dog fights.”
“I was accused of that,” Valentine said. “I was never convicted of that. Is that fact or fiction?”
“Did you take a plea to it?” Linenbroker asked.
“Yes maam, I sure did,” Valentine said.
“A plea to me is the same as saying that you’re guilty,” Linenbroker said.
Commission chairman Jim Rice, who also voted against the repeal, said he has a problem with a vicious dog law because it requires something to happen before it can be enforced.
“We’d have to wait until that happens,” he said. “I think there was a reason back in ’91 when they established the ordinance. I can’t tell you what it was. It was breed specific. I think this commission felt when they passed that resolution, it was a request from the sheriff, by the sheriff with concern for the safety of his officers. It was the action of this commission to abide by the sheriff’s wishes.”
Commissioner C.J. Wettstein, who voted for the repeal, said he agrees with a vicious dog law, and he also has problems with people who fight dogs.
“To me, I think it’s atrocious that people do things like that,” he said. “I would go with the vicious dog law because I don’t think we should be breed specific, but I would like to see something in there that is really tough on anybody who fights dogs in Seward County.”
Wettstein said the pit bull resolution has been proven not to work.
“We still have them, and we seem to be gaining,” he said. “I have no problem going with the vicious dog law, but I would like to have something added as tough as we could make it on anybody who fights dogs.”
Linenbroker disagreed saying she believes the ban didn’t work because of the grandfather clause.
“It’s been a way that people can get under and around that existing law, and the sheriff has not been able to really enforce it because they keep coming back to the grandfather clause,” she said.
Wettstein said he still believed a vicious dog law would work better.
“I think there has been a lack of teeth in the resolution we drew up in 1991,” he said. “I feel our biggest problem is the people who fight pit bulls. I think we should try to make it a horrendous crime if you’re going to fight pit bulls.”
Diepenbrock said he believed there was a state statute in place for dog fighting, and he was not sure if the county could override that statute. The commission will next look at drawing up a vicious dog law for the county.
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