Backlash on rules returns with bite

By Simon Hendery

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CANINE CONCERNS: About 200 people turned out at a community meeting in Flaxmere this month to voice their anger over Hastings District Council's dog policies. PHOTO / PAUL TAYLOR
CANINE CONCERNS: About 200 people turned out at a community meeting in Flaxmere this month to voice their anger over Hastings District Council's dog policies. PHOTO / PAUL TAYLOR

Thirty-four minutes.
That was how long Hastings District Council's planning and regulatory committee spent discussing and setting annual dog control fees at a meeting back in April.
At the time, committee chairman Mick Lester was moved to comment on the unusually speedy resolution to an issue that has traditionally involved significant debate and emotion around the council table.
But if councillors thought their efficiency in setting fees for the year meant all was well in the dog control area, they were barking up the wrong tree. In recent months the issue has come back to bite them.
The district's residents have gone online to vent anger at the council's dog policies, with actions including the setting up of a "Hastings Dog Rangers Wall of Shame" Facebook page and a "Free Dougie" campaign in response to the seizure of a boxer cross.
The case of 4-year-old Dougie proved a flashpoint for concern the council's "hard line" dog policy had gone too far.
About 200 people attended a July 7 meeting in Flaxmere to discuss concerns about the policy, prompting the council to instigate plans for an independent review of its approach to dog regulations in the district.
Hastings Mayor Lawrence Yule says the council introduced its tough dog policy around 2008 in response to a worrying number of canine attacks on people and other dogs due to a problem with uncontrolled and unregistered animals in the district.
"At the time councillors, staff and I were sick of seeing pictures on the front page of animal attacks and some of the harm that was done, both to people and to dogs, so we deliberately did something," he says.
"Nationally we've won quite a lot of accolades for it - the Office of the Auditor General now regards it as best practice, how we do it and how we charge for it.
"It's been taken up by a number of other councils in New Zealand and I've spoken at animal control conferences on it."
The strategy proved effective at reducing dog attacks in the district.

In 2007, before the policy change, there were 201 reported dog attacks, including 63 on people. In 2012, two years after the council employed two extra animal-control officers, total attacks were down to 63, of which 17 were on people.
But Mr Yule admits taking a hard line on dogs has led to complaints that good dog owners have been caught up in the implementation of the tough policy - hence the independent review to assess how things could be done differently.
"Our animal control officers have a difficult job dealing with difficult dogs, difficult situations, sometimes very passionate owner who are very protective of what their dog may or not have done," he says.
"That's on one side, but there are a whole lot of really good dog owners in the middle who I think feel a little bit put on at the moment and that's what I hope this review will have a look.
"Now we've got the dangerous and menacing dogs under control the area we've got to look at is effectively how we make it easier and cheaper and less hassle for good dog owners who have non-menacing, non-dangerous dogs, and hopefully this review will have a look at that and say, how can we do that a bit better?"
Mr Yule says claims he does not like dogs are not true. "I've had dogs all my life since I was 10. The issue is not about that, the issue is about how we make the dog control policy and the implementation of it fair and equitable so effectively good dog owners are rewarded for being good dog owners, and we've cleaned up the more difficult dogs that are dangerous and menacing."
One move in the direction of assisting "good" dog owners was taken by the planning and regulatory committee during its 34 minute dog-fee setting session back in April.
The council temporarily - until the end of this month - halved the cost of applications under the "selected owners policy" from $120 to $60. Under the policy, approved dog owners, who go through a process including an inspection of their property, pay a reduced annual dog registration fee.
Interest in the reduced application fee has been strong and Mr Yule says the more people who become part of the scheme the better.
He says "selected owners" tend to be good dog owners meaning their pets tend not to come to the attention of animal control staff and there they aren't a cost on the ratepayer.
The issue of who pays for dog control matters is also something councils need to grapple with. In Hastings the policy is that 90 per cent of costs should be met by dog owners, with the remaining 10 per cent being met by ratepayers. In Napier the split is 70/30, and dog fees being cheaper in the city.
Hastings councillor Wayne Bradshaw is among those to call for uniformity in dog fees and charges across the region, but Mr Yule says the different "public good" ratios councils apply when it comes to setting fees is the major barrier to achieving this.
Hastings council reconsidered its 90 per cent policy last year and decided the ration "was about right". Because it was a "philosophical" issue that different councils approached in different ways, uniting the region under a single policy "will probably take a bit of doing", he says.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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