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Palm Coast Friday, Oct. 5, 2018 1 month ago

Dog's supporters interrupt City Council meeting, get warning from FCSO commander

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Commander Mark Carman warned Cooper's supporters that he would have to arrest them if they continued interrupting the meeting.
by: Jonathan Simmons News Editor

A group of people opposing the potential killing of a dangerous dog attended an Oct. 2 Palm Coast City Council meeting, and some of them interrupted the proceedings so frequently that Sheriff's Office Commander Mark Carman warned them that he'd arrest them if they continued. 

The individuals were there to support Cooper, a dog that was ordered by a city hearing officer to be euthanized after it bit a man, causing severe injuries, after having previously been declared dangerous because of a previous bite. Once the dog was placed in quarantine at the Flagler Humane Society for the second bite, which occurred in late February, it then bit a staff member there while its owner, Dottye Benton, was visiting.

But Benton and a circle of supporters have been lobbying the city to allow the dog to be sent to a rescue ranch in western Florida, the owner of which has agreed to take it, rather than having the dog killed. The City Council and city attorney have said that the council does not have the authority to allow that, because the requirement that a dog that has previously been declared dangerous be killed if it bites a second time is spelled out in state law. 

Benton has appealed to Circuit Court, but the city has no authority over the judge.

"Two separate independent magistrates, at hearings where due process was afforded, reached the conclusion that under Florida law, this dog be deemed a dangerous dog, and under Florida law, there is only one result that is allowed — and that is exactly what is happening and that is what is going before the judge on appeal," City Attorney Bill Reischmann said during the meeting.

"You are asking this council to violate the charter and their oath of office by asking and demanding that they ignore the facts and disregard, if not violate, the law. They took an oath of office. They have to follow that."

— BILL REISCHMANN, Palm Coast city attorney

People in the group began speaking, and Carman walked over to the group. Mayor Milissa Holland already previously instructed them multiple times not to applaud after fellow supporters' statements and not to interrupt. 

"Look, don’t put me in a spot," Carman said. "The mayor’s asked you two or three times. Next person that talks, I’m going to ask you to leave. You don’t abide by ... my decision, I’m going to have to arrest you for disruption of a public service. Please, let the man speak. You guys had your chance to speak. Don’t put me in that spot. OK?"

The group fell silent, and Reischmann finished by telling Cooper's backers that by pressing City Council on the issue, they've been misdirecting their energy.

"What can be productive and come out of this unfortunate situation is to go to your legislators and ask then to take into consideration some other consequence other than what the law currently provides," Reischmann said. "You are asking this council to violate the charter and their oath of office by asking and demanding that they ignore the facts and disregard, if not violate, the law. They took an oath of office. They have to follow that. The law is clear; the facts are undisputed. Two hearing officers concluded that. The judge can reach a different conclusion, but this council cannot."

COOPER'S CONFINEMENT

Speaking at the beginning of the meeting, Cooper's owner, Dottye Benton, said Cooper was confined 23 hours per day at the Humane Society.

"Cooper’s third bite, I don’t know if any of you have read about kennel rage, but he’s let out one hour a day," she said. "He’s kept in his kennel for 23 hours with no interaction with other animals. I go every day, but I have to sit outside his kennel to play with him, and there’s really no contact."

Another speaker called Cooper's confinement "animal cruelty" and blamed the city for it.

Speaking after the public comment period, Councilman Vincent Lyon, who is also an attorney, reiterated Reischmann's comments about the City Council's inability to sway the legal case concerning the dog. But the city, he said, could look into how the dog is being held.

"An allegation was made that the dog was kept under poor conditions at the Humane Society," he said. "That is something we perhaps could have some influence on, the conditions under which the dog is there."

He'd heard conflicting stories about how much freedom Cooper was getting, but he'd heard that he was getting more than the hour alleged by Benton. 

"The law required that the dog be kept in quarantine, until the court decides. That doesn’t mean that conditions in quarantine can’t be as humane as possible," he said. 

Flagler Humane Society Executive Director Amy Carotenuto said Oct. 5 that the amount of time Cooper gets out of his kennel each day varies and is dictated by staff availability.

"It’s after the third bite that we really tightened the reigns," she said, referring to the incident in which Cooper bit a Humane Society staff member. "He still does get out, but it's really only with key staff, and we're being pretty careful. ... but it’s at least once a day, sometimes twice a day. ... We try to get all of the dogs out twice a day."

Sometimes Cooper's time outside his kennel may be less than an hour, sometimes it's closer to two hours. One limiting factor is that only a handful of people out of the more than two dozen staff members at the Humane Society are able to safely work with Cooper, Carotenuto said. 

Carotenuto said Benton has been visiting Cooper daily and has been giving Cooper butt scratches with a back scratcher through the fence, since, after the most recent bite, Benton is no longer allowed to be in his kennel with him. 

Benton's circuit court appeal of the city hearing officer's order to have Cooper euthanized has not yet been set for a hearing. 

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