For a public gathering about dog laws in Missoula, last week's meeting of the city's Public Safety and Health Committee proved surprisingly mundane. Officials wrangled over appropriate leash lengths on trails, lamented animal control's limited enforcement resources and nitpicked the canine parts of Missoula's lengthy animal ordinance. Only Lawrence Shriner stepped up to offer public feedback, suggesting that the language concerning nuisance dogs be amended to exclude dogs barking "for good reason."
"I don't know how you determine what the good reason is, but if you're not there and there's an animal there, it's pretty hard to control," Shriner said.
That pretty much sums up the second in a string of eight public meetings on the animal ordinance that the committee has scheduled through the end of August.
Anyone who re-members the backlash against stricter leash laws two years ago will no doubt find the current drought of public input somewhat ironic. It was partly a lack of citizen feedback that spawned the city's line-by-line revision of the ordinance in the first place.
The history of the animal ordinance update goes back to spring 2009, when the city council reviewed a proposal officially adopting the Parks Department's practice of allowing dogs to be off leash on open space lands. The council instead reversed its position and voted to ban leash-less dogs from those areas.
Few if any citizens were present to raise objections at the time, Ward 3 Councilman Bob Jaffe recalls. "Nobody had paid a whole lot of attention to it up to that point because the proposal was memorializing the current practice. Then it got switched and there was a lot of uproar from dog walkers who like to have dogs off leash up on the open space lands. The mayor vetoed the ordinance change and said he wanted to see this go back through in a more comprehensive review."
Dogs are currently allowed off-leash on open space lands. City staffers, meanwhile, have been working on thorough edits to the ordinance ever since the uproar. The edits will come before the council for a vote once the public safety and health committee has completed its assessment.
While the ordinance covers everything from backyard chickens to urban bees, laws governing dogs and cats have so far dominated what public debate the committee's work has generated. Jaffe's brief account of the first animal ordinance meeting, posted to his city listserv, generated a rash of responses, with some weighing in on the topic of roaming cats and others addressing off-leash dogs on public trails.
Ward 3 Councilwoman Stacy Rye responded to calls for stricter laws governing at-large cats by pointing out how limited animal control's enforcement resources already are. "I don't know that it's wise for council to pass another law for something that's a nuisance rather than an actual public hazard," she wrote. "I've heard from too many runners who've been bitten by dogs, and had to apologize that we don't have the staff to come to every place every time." The runners' complaints are often about dogs in public spaces, Rye said, "which we all should be able to enjoy."
Four officers currently staff Mis-soula's Animal Control division. Only two are ever on duty at the same time, covering the entire county. They work seven days a week, from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., or later if the calls demand it.
Animal Control Supervisor Ed Franceschina says the division re-sponds to every call it can. "We haven't added an officer to our staff in about 15 years, and how much has Missoula grown in 15 years? I think it's something that probably should be very, very seriously looked at, giving us a bit more enforcement personnel."
The number of animal control officers isn't part of the present debate, however. Instead, much of what the committee has reviewed so far is legal minutiae. Last Wednesday's meeting lasted nearly an hour and a half. Much of that time was spent hashing out problems with retractable leashes tripping joggers and bikers. Ward 4 Councilman Jon Wilkins equated the regulation of leash lengths on different trails to "fishing on the Bitterroot River," where laws vary almost from bridge to bridge and prove incredibly confusing. The committee seemed to side with Ward 2 Council-woman Pam Walzer when she said, "You cannot regulate every idiot, and good people are being punished because of those idiots you're never going to catch anyway."
"I almost felt dumb writing about all these retractable leash details," Jaffe says of the revisions. "It was ridiculous. It's one of those things where it's not that big a deal, but at the same time, if we're going through and trying to clean this thing up and make it usable for the next 20 years, we might as well get it right and pay attention to those details."
The lack of excitement around the revisions could change soon. The committee met June 27 to discuss voice restraint for dogs on open space lands—the very issue that started this process. Whether Missoula will overturn its current practice and require dogs to be leashed on open space lands remains to be seen, but Ward 6 Councilman Ed Childers made his feelings on the matter abundantly clear in a June 20 preamble to the voice restraint discussion. "I think it's largely a myth," he said. "I seldom see actual voice-restrained dogs. I think if we're going to have voice restraint be one of our criteria, we need to have some way to validate that."