Proposed ordinance banning certain retail animal sales to be lone county agenda item on Jan. 27

On a 4-1 vote, the County Commission this week agreed to advertise a public hearing but asked staff to amend language of the proposed law beforehand to exempt certain types of breeders

Speaker Karen Ankerstar showed the board this photo of dogs at a breeding operation she said had been inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Image courtesy Sarasota County
Karen Ankerstar of Sarasota showed the board this photo of dogs at a breeding operation she said had been inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. News Leader photo of the slide

After about two hours and 40 minutes of public comments on Sept. 21, the Sarasota County Commission voted 4-1 to advertise that a public hearing will be held on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016, on a proposed ordinance that would ban sales of commercially bred animals in certain retail establishments. As requested by the board, it will be the only item on the agenda that day.

Commissioner Christine Robinson cast the minority vote, contending the proposed ordinance could prevent reputable breeders from selling young animals to customers at ancillary businesses the breeders owned and operated, such as a pet grooming service.

Referring to the draft ordinance, she pointed out, “This has got a lot of problems with it right now, and it’s government intrusion upon some legitimate businesses …”

Robinson added that she preferred not having to rewrite the ordinance during the public hearing; instead, revisions should be completed beforehand and then discussed prior to setting the hearing.

Assistant County Attorney David Pearce told the commissioners the original version contained language that would exempt breeders. “It would not be that difficult to find that old draft,” Pearce added, though he indicated the section’s removal resulted from concern that the ordinance, if passed, could lead to lawsuits charging inequitable treatment of business owners. Pearce cited the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution as the foundation for that deletion.

“We’ll continue to work with all the stakeholders involved in this case, take their input,” Pearce said.

“We will work on it” and bring back the language Robinson suggested, probably in an alternate version of the ordinance, County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh told the board.

Before the board passed the motion on Sept. 21, Chair Carolyn Mason asked DeMarsh, “If the board votes to set this for public hearing, does that say … that the board has approved this ordinance?”

“It certainly does not say that,” DeMarsh responded. “It means only that you’ll have a legal, advertised public hearing on the issue.”

The Sarasota County Commission sits in session this week. Photo by Rachel Hackney
The Sarasota County Commission sits in session this week. Photo by Rachel Hackney

Public comments

Because the matter was on the Sept. 21 agenda as a discussion item, 55 members of the public appeared before the board during three different parts of the meeting, when comments were allowed. All but six addressed the board after Mason opened the afternoon session, which was held in Venice.

Almost one-third of the speakers were representatives or employees of Petland Sarasota, located on Fruitville Road. The first person to address the board during the afternoon session was Dr. David Smith of Bay Road Animal Hospital in Sarasota, who serves as the veterinarian for the business. He praised the owners and staff for allowing him “to practice the highest quality of medicine possible.”

Smith cautioned the commissioners not to believe comments from any former employees of the store, adding, “I would say, consider the source.”

Rylee Barr addresses the County Commission on Sept. 21. News Leader photo
Rylee Barr addresses the County Commission on Sept. 21. News Leader photo

One former Petland employee, Rylee Barr, apologized for her emotional comments from the podium. She told the board she was paid, as a worker at the business, to make positive remarks about Petland during the last public hearing on a proposed ordinance, which was held on Dec. 10, 2013.

However, when she later worked as a kennel manager at the business, Barr continued, she witnessed cruelty to animals; as a result, she “never could speak another positive word about Petland.”

She described a situation that she said Sarasota County Animal Services staff could verify. It regarded a puppy that had come to Petland “terrified and refusing to eat after arriving on a truck from a ‘puppy mill.’”

Barr said she expressed concern about the condition of the animal on a number of occasions to co-workers, “and nothing was done.” Finally, with the puppy appearing close to death from malnourishment, Barr told the board she rushed into a meeting of the sales staff and said the dog needed to be taken to a veterinarian.

“When I was ushered back into the kennel,” she continued, “I was not met with concern.” Instead, she added, she was reprimanded for disrupting the meeting.

Finally, Barr said, “an employee who was not a licensed vet tech shot fluid into the puppy’s back via syringe,” and the puppy lost consciousness in Barr’s hands. Immediately afterward, Barr told the board, she left Petland’s employment.

“There are other jobs,” she said, “jobs that don’t jeopardize living beings.”

Brad Parker, a member of the family that owns Petland, explained to the board that he visits breeders of the animals the store sells to verify the standards of their operations, adding that he had emailed the board members videos of some of those kennels. Noting that earlier speakers had criticized the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for its lack of thoroughness in inspections of breeding operations, Parker said, “The USDA has strengthened its regulations.”

Kristen Parker, Brad’s wife, told the board Petland has the “utmost consideration for the animals’ health.”

However, Karen Ankerstar, a Sarasota Realtor, showed the commissioners numerous slides depicting cruelty to animals at what she referred to as “just a few of the thousands and thousands of USDA-inspected breeders.”

Karen Ankerstar presented this slide showing a dog at what she said was a USDA-inspected breeding operation. It and another dog shared the kennel, she added, and neither could fit into the shelter provided. News Leader photo
Karen Ankerstar presented this slide showing a dog at what she described as a USDA-inspected breeding operation. It and another dog shared the kennel, she added, and neither could fit into the shelter provided. News Leader photo taken of the slide

Stewart David of Venice also noted the “extremely minimal USDA standards” as he told the board about rescuing dogs from a puppy mill that had been the focus of a Dateline segment. “I will never forget what I saw there over a decade ago,” he added of the Kansas breeding operation. “It was heartbreaking.”

Anthony Samples, vice president of corporate stores for Petland, which is based in Ohio, stressed, “The Parker family have followed all the rules.”

Approving the proposed ordinance most likely would put 25 people out of work and bankrupt the Parkers, he added.

Russell Matthes, a member of the board of Sarasota in Defense of Animals, pointed out to the commissioners that he employs more than 300 people as co-owner of the Daiquiri Deck Raw Bars on Siesta Key and St. Armands Circle and in Venice, so he understands the value of jobs.

However, he continued, whenever communities have approved ordinances such as the one proposed in Sarasota County, businesses in those communities, “including multiple Petlands,” have adapted.

In reference to legal challenges of such ordinances, Attorney Morgan Bentley of Bentley & Bruning in Sarasota provided the commissioners, the county attorney and Assistant County Attorney Pearce with a 22-page memo on Aug. 20. It offered details about cases across the country, including one involving the City of Sunrise. Bentley wrote that the Federal Court for the Southern District of Florida had rejected all of the constitutional attacks on the Sunrise ordinance, saying it did not create a Commerce Clause issue. Among other citations in that case, Bentley continued, the court found that “Protecting the health and welfare of domestic animals is a legitimate governmental interest; indeed, courts around the country have held so.”

Bentley also appeared before the board on Sept. 22 to point out that discussion of a Sarasota County ordinance began three years ago. “You should have a public hearing on this.”

Board action

After the conclusion of the public comments, Commissioner Robinson raised her points about the ordinance’s effect on breeders in the community. She explained to her colleagues that she had purchased one of her dogs from a person whose kennel she had visited after the puppies were born, though she conducted the financial transaction at the breeder’s place of business.

Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson agreed that the draft ordinance would prohibit such a purchase.

“My concern would be just that unintended consequence,” Robinson added: “kneecapping transactions that we would like to foster.”

County Commissioner Charles Hines. Photo by Rachel Hackney
County Commissioner Charles Hines. Photo by Rachel Hackney

Commissioner Charles Hines said he also was uncomfortable with the language of the draft ordinance. It would be preferable for a person to visit a breeder and see the conditions on-site, he added.

Robinson further noted that the proposed ordinance referenced rabbits only once, whereas it mentioned puppies and kittens in several cases.

“We can certainly correct that,” Assistant County Attorney Pearce told her.

Only one speaker during the public comments period mentioned the impact on rabbit sales, Hines added.

Finally, Chair Carolyn Mason called for a motion, which Commissioner Paul Caragiulo made.

“I’m confident that [the county’s] legal and zoning departments can address [the concerns the commissioners have raised],” he said.

In response to Robinson’s request that staff set the public hearing as the only item on the Jan. 27, 2016, agenda, Vice Chair Al Maio joked that he had thought Robinson was being excessively cautious in asking that the Sept. 22 discussion be the only item scheduled for that afternoon.

Maio also pointed out, “It’s critically important that everybody gets their say in a calm, quiet manner,” noting that most of the approximately 200 people in the Commission Chambers that afternoon had been well-behaved.

Hines added, “What we heard today was a lot of emotion, and it was not sworn testimony.” Speaking to the audience members, he continued, “Next time, you … will be under oath, [swearing that the statements are true] at the pain of perjury … and you’re going to sign [a card] and you’re going to date it.” He was referring to the card each speaker is required to sign to address the board during a public hearing.

Hines continued, “The hearsay testimony that occurred today — I can’t call it testimony. … This is serious stuff, those accusations going back and forth.”