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A proposed ordinance seeking to strengthen the City’s Dangerous Dogs Ordinance was held by the Human Services Committee on July 13.

The decision to hold, a procedural maneuver allowing any single alderman to delay an ordinance until the next meeting without a vote or the support of any other aldermen, came from Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward – and only after serious and at times heated debate in Council chambers that addressed nearly everything except the proposed changes themselves.

Alderman Coleen Burrus, 9th Ward, who is not currently a member of the Human Services Committee, brought the proposed amendment forward after several of her constituents reported problems getting the City to adequately respond to dog attacks. She told the committee that she had personally experienced dog attacks twice, once before and once after her election. “The animal warden did basically nothing,” she reported. The proposed ordinance seeks to address the problem, she said.

Tom Okawara, who lives on Kirk Street, told the Committee that in October 2010 his dog was attacked by a neighbor’s pit bull while his wife was taking the dog for a walk. In investigating the incident, Mr. Okawara discovered that the same pit bull had attacked another neighborhood dog, with serious injuries on both sides, earlier that same year. He contacted the animal warden, he said, but “with no results.”

Mr. Okawara, through a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, learned that since 2007 over 170 dog bite incidents have been reported in Evanston – yet not a single dangerous dog citation has issued. “I support Ald. Burrus’ efforts to strengthen the dangerous dog ordinance,” he concluded.

Ald. Fiske said that it appeared to her the problem was with enforcement of the current ordinance and not with the ordinance itself. She encouraged education of dog owners as a solution and more responsiveness from the police department.

Chief of Police Richard Eddington admitted that police should be more responsive, but took issue with adding the education of dog owners to his department’s list of duties. When budget season begins, he said, “I have this vision of standing at this podium fighting for every nickel I can get.”

The police department is stretched thin already and should not take on added or additional duties, he said.

The proposed ordinance shifts some of the responsibility from the City to dog owners, said Chief Eddington. He suggested changes to the administrative hearing process. Currently, if a dog owner receives a citation to appear before a City administrative adjudication hearing and fails to appear, the consequences are insufficient to “get their attention.” If the City enacted “a default number of $100 or $110, that would get their attention.” Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, said that while it may appear as though nothing is being done in dangerous dog situations, it might not be the case. “Tickets do get written,” she said, “they are just being ignored. My feeling is the ordinance we have is working.”

To the extent it needed amending, Ald. Holmes added, a complete overhaul would be a better approach. “The animal ordinance dates from 1979,” she said. She suggested the committee do its due diligence, study the issue over several months, and come back with a comprehensive reworking to the entire animal ordinance.

Ald Burrus said that she and the legal department had been working on the issue for six months, looking at “ordinances from across the country and Illinois. This ordinance really is state of the art.” It is in accord with the model ordinance suggested by the Illinois Municipal League and was vetted by Seventh Ward Alderman Jane Grover, she added.

“I don’t think the Illinois Municipal League is the be all and end all to determining the state of the art. … We need to go a little farther afield than that,” said Ald. Fiske. She suggested input from the Community Animal Rescue Effort (C.A.R.E.) and the Police Chief’s human advisory committee, a group that was proposed but never actually formed in response to the feral cat incidents in early 2010 according to Chief Eddington.

Ald. Holmes asked who Ald. Fiske felt needed to be consulted. Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd ward, asked, “What do you have an issue with [in the proposed ordinance]?”

The discussion threatened briefly to turn to the actual ordinance itself, but the moment passed.

The proposed changes were never discussed. Rather, Chair Mark Tendam, 6th Ward, said he felt the ordinance was rather well written and suggested that the committee forward it to the full Council for a vote.

Ald. Fiske interrupted him mid-sentence, saying, “I really disagree with that.” She then invoked her aldermanic privilege to hold any proposed legislation for one month.

The next Human Services Committee meeting takes place on Aug. 1. Ald. Fiske, reached by phone, said she plans to submit a series of amendments at or prior to that meeting. Perhaps the committee will address the actually proposed changes then.

Proposed Changes to the Dangerous Dog Ordinance

The current ordinance defines a dangerous dog but does not clearly indicate how that label attaches to an animal. The amendment would give that task to the Chief of Police of the Chief’s designee, presumably the animal warden. The designation can be issued only after looking at evidence pertaining to the dog’s temperament, relevant documents, and medical (veterinary) history. A provision allowing an owner to appeal the decision remains.

The license fee for owning a “dangerous dog” increases from $100 to $250 per year. The amendment, however, adds the new $250 figure to one section of the code without removing the old $100 figure from the existing code and would therefore create an inconsistency.

Under the existing code, the $100 license fee buys an owner a few “dangerous dog” signs to place around property on which the dog is located. The amendment requires the dog owner to pay for such signs, but could be read to require all dog owners to obtain a $250 license before places “beware of dog” signs anywhere.

Owners of dangerous dogs must obtain at least $100,000 worth of liability insurance. Currently, they must provide the City with proof of insurance upon request. The amendment would require the owner to provide proof whether the City asked for it or not.