Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

April 26, 2013

Board members defend pit bull ban decision in Bluefield

By CHARLES OWENS
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

BLUEFIELD — Members of the Bluefield Board of Directors are defending their decision to ban all new, and unregistered pit bulls, from the city’s municipal limits.

Mayor Linda Whalen, and board member Pete Sternloff, met Thursday with members of the Daily Telegraph’s editorial board. They were asked about the merits of the new ban versus an existing 2008 ordinance, the board’s controversial decision not to allow public comment on the issue before voting on the ban, and what impact the ban will have on the Mercer County Animal Shelter.

“We feel like this is just an opportunity for us to get this situation under control, and at the appropriate time we can revisit it (the ban),” Whalen said.

“If you go back at least three or four board meetings, we brought it up that there would be an ordinance,” Sternloff said. “So there was total transparency. Everyone was given a chance to sign up (to speak).”

Under the new ordinance passed on a 4-0 vote Tuesday with board member Dr. Tom Blevins absent, current pit bull owners in the city have until May 3 to register their dogs at the Bluefield Police Department, or the animal will be removed from the municipal limits. After May 3, no new pit bulls will be allowed in the city.

Whalen said more than 50 existing pit bulls have been registered since the ban was first proposed.

“We have found another 40 some that are illegal, and one property had 15,” she said. “We have found three breeders who are not registered. We know we have well over a 100 pit bulls in the city of Bluefield. The city has no registered pit bull breeders at the moment. We feel like this is something we just need to get control of. We just feel like this is one way to take a step back and get control of this problem. It can be revisited once we get it under control”

Whalen agreed with Sternloff in terms of the public comment question — adding that city officials didn’t schedule a public hearing on the pit bull issue because they felt citizens were afforded several opportunities to speak on the issue. In fact, Whalen said only two citizens spoke about pit bulls during the meeting when the first reading of the ordinance was approved.

“Most of us understand where the pit bulls that are a problem are coming from — the breeders,” Sternloff said. “What they are doing is constantly producing these puppies in their house.”

In terms of the enforcement of the new ordinance, Sternloff said it is the responsibility of the city’s animal control officer working in conjunction with the Bluefield Police Department to pick up pit bulls that are not registered — and living illegally in the city — after May 3. Those pit bull owners found in violation of the ordinance could face a fine of up to $1,000 or up to 30 days in jail. Sternloff said the final decision with regards to the fine or possible jail time will rest with a city judge.

Although an existing 2008 ordinance that required for all pit bull owners to have their animals registered appeared to be working — at least during the last three weeks with more than 50 animals being registered — Whalen said the ban was necessary to get the pit pull population in the city stabilized and under control.

Although the new ordinance has been blasted by citizens on Facebook, and other social media sites, Sternloff said he has heard from several citizens who support the ordinance.

“We’ve had a tremendous amount of support from the community,” Sternloff said.

Whalen said a 2-year-old child was just recently killed in Georgia by a pit bull attack. She said City Attorney Brian Cochran has learned that there have been at least eight recent pit bull attacks across the country. And a pit bull that threatened a West Virginia State Police trooper was recently shot and killed in Princeton, Whalen said.

In terms of whether the ordinance will lead to further overcrowding at the animal shelter, Whalen points to the fact that the city has a spay-neuter ordinance, and the county doesn’t. She believes the lack of a spay-neuter ordinance in the county is leading to overcrowding at the animal shelter.

“I don’t feel it (the pit bull ban) is a political issue,” Sternloff said. “It shouldn’t be a political issue.”

— Contact Charles Owens at cowens@bdtonline.com