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Council puts more teeth into transient rules

Having unvaccinated dogs or smoking marijuana in public are among the items that could get violators expelled from downtown Ashland, under new rules approved in a first reading by Ashland City Council Tuesday.

The council took up several ordinances in its session aimed at giving law enforcement additional tools to combat what is seen as a rise in undesirable behavior in the downtown area.

Responding to a wave of public discontent regarding aggressive transients, the council put the proposed ordinances on the agenda to deal with problem behaviors that could constitute the crime of persistent nuisance.

The first issue addressed pertained to licensing and vaccination of dogs. While county law requires that all dogs be registered and vaccinated, for those passing through, the requirement to register a dog with the county does not apply. The ordinance, which passed 5-1 in a first reading with Councilor Carol Voisin dissenting, would require either a dog license or proof of rabies vaccination.

The ordinance also defined problem dog behaviors that could also constitute the crime of persistent nuisance. Included were menacing and running at large, biting, chasing, damaging property, excessive noise, obstructing a sidewalk and trespass on private property. City Attorney Dave Lohman said the changes reflected the reality of the downtown.

“We require dog licensing and define specific dog behaviors as public nuisances," he said. "There are an increasing number of dogs, particularly in the downtown area, and these changes are an attempt to deal with that.”

While proof of vaccination can be used as a legal tool, Ashland police Chief Tighe O’Meara said his officers would not be spot-checking dogs in Ashland anytime soon.

“It’s not something we have any practical ability to stop just anybody with a dog," he said. "If we received a complaint, if there was a dog on the Plaza or on someone’s property, it might be something that was part of a subsequent investigation. It would be analogous to when we make a traffic stop for a primary violation, we might also check to see if they had insurance.”

Councilor Rich Rosenthal questioned why it wouldn’t be a primary offense. O’Meara said he didn’t feel there was a legal basis for stopping people on the street to see if they had a license for their dog.

“Could we do that legally? Perhaps. But I don’t think that’s the level of injection into peoples’ lives that the community wants to see.”

The council unanimously supported a motion to add failing to vaccinate dogs and public smoking of marijuana as constituting persistent violations, which could result in those convicted being expelled from downtown. While Councilor Mike Morris said he worried that might push marijuana use outside of the downtown core into neighborhoods, he ended up supporting the motion. Voisin said she felt volunteer outreach programs to vaccinate transient dogs were effective and that transients cared for their pets and wanted to do it for the health of their animals, but she, too, ultimately supported the motion.

Another motion added the Bill Patton Garden, situated between the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Lithia Park, to the Enhanced Law Enforcement Area, from which persistent violators can be expelled. After testimony by O’Meara, the council was unanimously persuaded that the area had sufficient behavioral problems to warrant adding it to the ELEA umbrella. 

Voisin said she had a problem with the exclusion zone because the problems were part of the larger society.

“We have the ordinances, but we still have the behavior," she said. "We still have the rudeness. The offensiveness. The bullying by citizens or transients. None of the ordinances even deal with this. So we have to find another way to come together.”

Grazing and herding livestock downtown was deemed a public safety hazard by the council. The city is tightening rules on grazing animals on public land. Horses were the topic of much of the discussion. O’Meara said he didn’t think horses were a good transportation choice downtown.

“I think that nobody has any business having a horse downtown. You have a 2,000-pound creature in a highly congested area along with people who might not be used to being around horses. I think you have a legitimate public safety issue.”

The council passed an amended motion that prohibited the grazing and herding of livestock in the city, but directed city staff to delineate areas that might be suitable for horse travel ahead of a second reading. The council passed the motion 5-1 with Voisin dissenting.

Alec Dickinson is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at AlecAlaska@gmail.com.