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Gal not dangerous in divided 3-2 decision

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By Kellie Parkin

City of Cedar Key commissioners voted Tuesday night that George Sresovich’s dog Gal is not dangerous after all, reversing a previous decision.

Revisiting the case was prompted by the city attorney, who while finalizing the paperwork, concluded that the City may not have had sufficient documentation to designate Gal as a dangerous dog and that the May 19 hearing may not have complied with Florida law.

“When preparing the final order… we carefully reviewed the state statute,” City Attorney David Coffey said at Tuesday night’s quasi judicial hearing. What the attorney’s office found, is that the “requirements were detailed and specific that there has to be two occurrences – one resulting in death” – of attacks on other animals, Coffey said.

While one incident met the requirement (it is believed that Gene Benedict’s cat Smokey was killed by Gal in late January), there is not another confirmed incident that supports the requirement.

Coffey said that the incident regarding Peggy Herrick’s dog, although resulting in puncture wounds to the dog’s neck, does not meet the test because stitches were not required nor were there multiple bites or broken bones.

Coffey said that by re-opening the hearing, it would give the opportunity for more evidence to be brought forward – possibly regarding menacing behavior or other attacks – as well as give the chance to properly comply with the law.

He also said that if the city determined the dog to be dangerous, it could not lessen the requirements, as the commission had done at the previous hearing.

If a dog is considered dangerous, city ordinance and state statute require certain measures to be taken to ensure the safety of the community, including posting signs notifying passers-by of the presence of a dangerous dog.

If a dog is determined to be dangerous, Coffey told commissioners, all requirements must be met. Coffey said that since the last hearing, his office learned that “There is an absolute lack of flexibility of the commission” once the determination has been made, he said. The commission could choose to strengthen or add more restrictive requirements than what the state mandates, but cannot reduce them, he said.

At the initial May 19 hearing, Gal was determined dangerous, but commissioners agreed that posting signs that stated “Dangerous Dog” would be unnecessary.

Coffey noted that these circumstances and subsequent hearings have taken the City of Cedar Key into uncharted territory and therefore people have been learning as things progress.

He said that the hearing needed to be reopened to “ensure that a decision is reached that fully conforms to state law.”

When the hearing was first opened, all witnesses – those who wished to speak and give testimony – were sworn in by the attorney.

Copies of the rules of proceedings were also passed around the room to ensure that those in attendance, as well as the commissioners, could understand procedures.

Questions about the procedures prompted the temporary closure of the hearing so that further clarification could be made.

“The amount of letters that funneled in here since the last time tripled, so if we don’t get this right this time, I cant imagine what will happen,” said Commissioner Heath Davis. “We need to make sure we do this right.”

Once the hearing was reopened, commissioners motioned to accept several letters and statements as evidence and then discussed their relevance and validity.

“We have had not one complaint as far as a new incident,” Police Chief Virgil Sandlin said. “And I can’t dutifully investigate a complaint that happened way back – I can only interview people.”

Commissioner Scott Dennison said he thought that interviewing the parties involved was considered “dutiful investigation” since there was no way to track down other evidence long after an incident occurred.

Chief Sandlin said that he thought this situation had been resolved, the dog was contained away from the public and that the determination of dangerous was no longer necessary.

“This last week I have been inundated with complaints about Gal – some from two, three years ago,” Sandlin said. “We have got to stop this foolishness. We shouldn’t be here tonight. George has done what we asked.”

Sresovich said that no matter the final ruling, he would continue to keep Gal on her steel cable. “No matter what, she’ll stay confined,” he said. “If she get’s out you can take her away.”

Many residents spoke on behalf of Gal and her loving nature, giving numerous examples of Gal playing with children, people and other dogs. They also spoke in regards to Sresovich’s moral character, describing him as a “gentleman” and an “outstanding citizen.”

Joan Horn, who filed a sworn complaint regarding Gal’s menacing behavior, said that it was not Sresovich’s actions she was concerned about.

“I’m not questioning the man at all – I’m questioning the actions of the dog,” Horn said.

Chris Rexroat told of the time Gal attacked her dog Elvis (while on a leash).

“Dog’s like people, but more so, can be unpredictable. This dog has a split personality, I guess. But you need to hear the painful awful experience I had – twice in five minutes. While sitting on the curb… trying to calm down… the dog re-attacked.”

“I was in danger,” Rexroat continued. “Maybe this seems like a small little issue, I can see people rolling their eyes, wishing it was over – well I wish it was over too.”

Rexroat did not take her dog to the vet, so there is no documentation of the attack.

Other residents presented sworn statements describing Gal’s menacing behavior – one of the criteria to be deemed a dangerous dog.

Gene Benedict spoke to commissioners saying he wanted to address a few comments.

He said that when his cat was killed, he asked his neighbor, Sresovich, to do something about the dog.

“We tried dealing with it as neighbors and friends, rather than going to police,” he said. That was the initial delay in reporting the incident, he said.

Benedict then wanted to make clear that he was not pursuing Gal’s confinement in retaliation for his cat Smoky’s death. He referenced the city animal ordinance part 2.07.02. General Provisions that states it’s for the “best interest of the public health, safety, and welfare of the citizens and residents of the city.”

“And I might add visitors to that, too,” he said. “That’s why I’m doing this. To make Cedar Key more safe.”

Before commissioners discussed their findings from the hearing, the city attorney reminded them that the statute defines a dangerous dog as any dog that meets one of the following conditions:

*Has aggressively bitten, attacked or inflicted severe injury on a person

*Has more than once attacked or killed domestic animals while off the owner's property (attack must result in physical injury with broken bones, multiple bites, or a bite that needs sutures)

*Has been involved in or trained in dog fighting

* “Has, when unprovoked, chased or approached a person upon the streets, sidewalks, or any public grounds in a menacing fashion or apparent attitude of attack, provided that such actions are attested to in a sworn statement by one or more persons and dutifully investigated by the department,” according to city ordinance and state statute.

Commissioner Dennison said that since the dog has chased, when unprovoked, in a menacing fashion, “I find this dog to be a dangerous dog.”

Commissioner Pat O’Neal said that it appeared Gal may be dangerous, but since specific dates were not available for those menacing encounters, he could not make a finding.

Commissioner Gene Hodges said that he did not believe that gal was dangerous but he did think that she should be locked up.

Mayor Sue Colson said that given the several complaints regarding the menacing attacks, she finds the dog dangerous. “We are not judging the people in this,” Mayor Colson said. ““I find that the dog has been considered dangerous.”

After more discussion, Commissioner Hodges motioned that Gal is not dangerous. It passed 3-2, Colson and Dennison dissenting.

Although not legally obligated to do so, Sresovich said he will keep Gal tethered and away from the public.

“I will confine the dog. You can put that on the record,” he said. “For the dog’s protection I plan on that.”