Select board unanimously approves updated ordinance giving ACO broader authority

By LEE J. KAHRS

BRANDON — The Town of Brandon now has the strongest animal control ordinance it has ever had, and supporters are hoping it’s enough to prevent troubling animal welfare cases in the future.

The Brandon Select Board on Monday unanimously approved the updated ordinance, which has been two months in the making. Numerous public comments were made at a public hearing held two weeks ago, prompting the board to delay a vote on the ordinance to digest those comments and receive additional input from the public.

“I want to thank everyone involved in the process,” said Board Chair Seth Hopkins at the regular meeting. “This is an issue the community cares about and we value the input we’ve received in trying to come up with an ordinance that takes into account all points of view.”

A REVIEW OF THE ISSUE

Animal Control Officer Margaret Kahrs suggested the board update the town ordinance in late May after being on the job for five months. She said she found inconsistencies in the law related to who answers to whom and what powers the ACO has and does not have. Previously, most animal calls went through the Brandon Police Department, although dog bites were handled by the select board. Meanwhile, town appointees general report to Town Manager Dave Atherton.

In the end, the board updated an ordinance that strengthens the ACO’s ability to enforce and educate the public around the proper care of animals and the town law designed to keep pets, their owners and the general public safe. The board also decided to direct the ACO to operate under the rules and auspices of Vermont state statute with regard to animal control, rather than be only beholden to the town ordinance.

Because Kahrs was appointed by the select board, state statute indicates that she is already a humane officer and can pursue additional certification to that end. Humane officers by state law include police officers, select board members, health officers, game wardens, humane society employees, and animal control officers. In other words, humane officers in Vermont are law enforcement officials authorized to serve criminal process, meaning they can write and serve civil or criminal citations to individuals for alleged infractions of town or state law.

The board agreed that Kahrs would now have all the powers of a humaneagent as laid out in state statute, including seizing animals or taking animals in voluntary surrender.

The board on Monday night approved the existing ordinance and the addition of the board’s eight points as written by Hopkins and Selectman Tim Guiles. They are:

“1. That the select board adopt the draft animal control ordinance as presented at the 13 July 2020 hearing/meeting. This draft is based on the Vermont League of Cities and Towns’ model animal control ordinance for municipalities.

“2. That the “flow chart” and the “farm size” infographics be attached to the animal control ordinance as Appendix A and Appendix B respectively.

“3. That the board find no further action need be taken for Brandon’s animal control officer to discharge the duties of a humane officer as set forth in Vermont law. Per VT Statute Title 13: Crimes and Criminal Procedure, Chapter 8: Humane and Proper Treatment of Animals, Subchapter 1: Cruelty To Animals § 351 (4): an “animal control officer appointed by the legislative body of a municipality” is designated a “humane officer”. Also, in that same subchapter, § 354(b): “Any humane officer … may enforce this chapter.” The board appointed Margaret Kahrs as Brandon’s animal control officer on Jan. 27, 2020.

“4. That the animal control officer pursue training for Vermont animal control officers and Vermont humane officers, enrolling in such courses as soon as they become available, the cost of such training and reasonable expenses to be borne by the Town upon submission of successful course completion to the town manager.

“5. That the animal control officer be directed to work at all times in collaboration with the Brandon Police Department, to whom she will address all questions of application of law and process. Any animal complaints referred to the ACO by BPD, and those generated by the ACO will be documented using the Brandon Police Department record keeping system.

“6. That the animal control officer be provided, as she has already partially been, the equipment required to enforce the Town’s ordinance, such equipment to be pre-approved by the town manager and to be returned to the Town in serviceable condition at the conclusion of her tenure. This does not include equipment required to be a pound keeper, for which service the Town works with the Rutland County Humane Society.

“7. That the animal control officer be provided with physical copies of the following, and be required to attest to her responsibility for and understanding the contents thereof in a signed statement returned to the board: (a) the Brandon Animal Control Ordinance including its Appendices; (b) the complete text of Chapter 8 of Title 13 VSA: Humane & Proper Treatment of Animals; and (c) VLCT’s Big Book of Woof.

“8. That the animal control officer, town manager, chief of police, and any others designated by the board meet either in person or by electronic means to conduct an orientation to (a) Brandon’s community value of compliance being our primary goal in all matters of municipal code/ordinance enforcement and (b) the level of responsiveness the select board desires of the animal control officer.”

Brandon Police Chief Chris Brickell said he was pleased with the update.

“State statute (Title 13) is very clear the town is giving the ACO the authority to operate in that chapter,” he said.

Brandon resident and animal rights supporter Michael Shank asked the board if the updated ordinance would now allow Kahrs to put liens on seized animals to make the owners pay for the expenses incurred in the seizure, such as vet bills, food, and other needs.

Hopkins responded that the new ordinance is not designed that way, but state statute is.

“We’re not allowing the ACO to do anything,” he said. “This allows the ACO all the powers of a humane officer and all the powers the state allows her position.”

Kahrs thanked the board members for their hard work in crafting the new ordinance.

“This has been a huge learning curve for myself and the town has learned a lot,” she said. “I think part of the reason why things weren’t executed well is because you don’t know what you don’t know. But, I would like to say ‘thank you’ to the town. I don’t think there is a state law that even requires a town to have an animal control officer.”

Later, Kahrs reiterated what Brickell said at the public hearing two weeks ago, that no law is effective without people coming forward on the record and reporting animal welfare complaints.

“I want to thank Brandon residents for speaking up,” she said. “Their town officials heard them and gave them what they asked for. It’s now on the residents to step up and stand behind the calls they make regarding animal welfare.”

Hopkins said his desire is to have an ACO who is “aware and responsive, but not intrusive.”

The seizure of over 400 animals from the Hegarty Farm in January and early February in Brandon had many residents weighing in on the recent animal control ordinance discussion. Shank asked if the new ordinance would prevent another Hegarty farm incident.

“Granted, we have an ACO who wants to pay attention. Who would notice a situation like the Hegarty farm and take action,” Guiles said, “and I think the ordinance supports that.”

Guiles then told Kahrs he was grateful for her professionalism and that he believed she would use her best judgment in those situations. Kahrs is a master dog trainer with over 20 years experience. She is also a former animal control officer in Lincoln County, Maine.

Selectman Tracy Wyman agreed and told Kahrs so.

“I appreciate that you’ve jumped in and taken an interest,” he said.

Brickell echoed that sentiment.

“There is no one who can be as grateful as I am for an animal control office,” he said. “It’s great to have someone with training and the desire to do the job.”

Before the board vote, Hopkins put the whole process of updating the ordinance in context.

“I think in the six years on the board, this was my single, biggest time investment,” he said. “I want to thank Margaret for us even having a conversation about animal control.”