Neither the town of West Tisbury, the commonwealth of Massachusetts, nor the United States of America is going to stand or fall based on the votes that were taken at last night’s special town meeting. Most of them were about dogs. One dealt with paving the parking lot shared by the library and the Howes House, home of the Up-Island Council on Aging. Another provided that the town pay its “one-third share of training and related services provided to the Tri-Town Ambulance staff during fiscal year 2013.” The latter was moved, seconded, and approved on a voice vote in less time than it took me to type that quote from it.
On the dog-related issues, though, and even the one about the parking lot, perspectives and positions differed. The voters may have looked like a homogeneous group, but we weren’t. We’re diverse, and our diversity has little to do with sex, race, or how we vote in national elections. And diversity is messy. It’s messy in part because most of us have a really hard time distinguishing principles from personalities, especially when the personalities belong to people we know and, in many cases, like and respect.
Take Article 2, “Restraint of Dogs.” Article 2 was meant to replace a bylaw that’s been in effect since the mid-1970s. That bylaw specified that “All dogs owned or kept within the limit of the Town shall be restrained from running at large or shall be kept within the immediate control of their owners and keepers.” Article 2 struck that sentence and replaced it with this:
“No person who owns or keeps a dog shall allow the animal under his care to run free when not restricted to the premises of said owner or keeper. When off premises of the owner or keeper, all dogs shall be leashed or restricted.”
“Restricted” is terminally vague — is it OK for someone to take her dog “off premises” in a motor vehicle? — and a selectman offered an amendment to clarify it by, among other things, extending an exemption to dogs being used in hunting or herding. This went from vague to vaguer. And none of Article 2’s supporters managed to explain how the new version improved on the old.
While we’re at it — does “leashed” include retractable leads and longlines? I’ve seen a few dogs on Flexis that are pretty much out of control.
But Article 2 got worse. Here’s the second paragraph:
“No dog shall be allowed to deposit feces not removed by the dog’s owner or keeper upon any property other than that of the dog’s owner or keeper.”
Leave aside the clumsy wording, which focuses on the dog’s behavior rather than the obligation of the owner/keeper. Objection #1: I don’t own any property. Does that mean Travvy can’t legally poop anywhere? Objection #2: Did the drafters of this article realize how much scrubby underbrush there is in this town? Some of it is privately owned, some is in conservation, some is open to the public. No one walks on any of it. That’s where Trav likes to poop when he’s on his Flexi lead. Am I going to follow him through the brambles and poison ivy and retrieve the feces he has so discreetly deposited out of sight and way off the path?
I am not, and I said so on the town meeting floor.
Which brings me to the third and last paragraph of Article 2, which begins as follows:
“Any person violating any provision of this by-law shall be punished by a fine of $50 for the first offense, $100 for the second offense, and $250 for the third and subsequent offenses . . .”
So if I decline to pick up poop that my dog has deposited in the underbrush, I will soon be hit with a $250 fine for each offense?
Here’s where the discussion got really interesting. A police officer and the animal control officer (ACO) both strongly implied that they would not in most instances attempt to enforce this part of the bylaw — or, as I understand it, the “leashed or restricted” part either. So the bylaw wanted to turn me and plenty of other responsible dog owners into chronic, albeit unpunished, scofflaws, in the interest of pursuing those other dog owners, the irresponsible ones who let their dogs run loose and get into trouble? And this is supposed to be OK because we trust our police officers and our ACO?
Do we understand what the “rule of law” is about and why it’s important? We all seem to understand it in the abstract, but our understanding flies out the window when people we know and like are involved. A good law doesn’t require stellar individuals to enforce it fairly. A good law can be enforced by the merely competent, and it shouldn’t contain loopholes that the less-than-competent, capricious, or downright unscrupulous can exploit at their discretion. Article 2 was poorly thought out and sloppily written. Saying so and voting against it implies nothing about one’s regard for the ACO and the police force. Opposing the Parks and Recreation Committee’s attempt to ban dogs entirely from Lambert’s Cove Beach implies nothing about one’s regard for the committee or its members.
But in both cases disrespect and even hostility to the personalities have been widely inferred from opposition to the policies they’ve sponsored or supported. This is nothing new. It happens all the time, and not just in small-town government. It’s 100% natural, but it’s also a big problem. It discourages people from speaking up, for fear that even their most tactful criticism of a policy will be perceived as a personal attack. (It doesn’t, however, seem to discourage people from making less-than-tactful comments in private.) It gives public officials an out: if they perceive all criticism as personally motivated, they don’t have to think too hard about the policies they’re pushing.
And that, I suspect, is why Article 2 was so poorly thought out and sloppily written: The drafters weren’t listening to people who would be affected by it. Input from dog owners would have made it clearer, more specific, and better suited to its intended purpose. Input from a competent editor wouldn’t have hurt either. The same goes for the ban-the-dogs effort in general.
Town meetings offer plenty of insight into what democracy is and why it’s important. We get so caught up in high-flown rhetoric about freedom, democracy, justice, etc., etc., that we tend to think of them as shiny jewels that can be ceremoniously presented in a velvet-lined box, or maybe a perfectly prepared turkey that can be carved and served up at a holiday dinner. They aren’t. Self-governance is messy, sometimes contradictory, often infuriating, and very rarely over and done with. It asks a lot of its participants. It’s not hard to see why despots and dictators are sure it’ll never work.