From The Mayor's Desk

A collection of writings about small town democracy by Roy Reehil, Mayor of the Village of Cleveland, New York.

Tabling the proposed nuisance animal control law

I'd like to thank and at the same time apologize to everyone who attended the public hearing concerning the proposed nuisance animal control law at the Cleveland village hall on Jan. 27. Thank you for taking the time to come out to share your opinion, and I apologize for having to cut the hearing short due to the overwhelming number of people that turned out.

Even though the hearing was cut short, you shouldn't feel that your time wasn't well spent. The straw poll that we held at the end of the hearing gave clear evidence of the overwhelming opposition to the law in its current draft. As a direct response to the straw poll results, I will ask the village board to table the current law at our next meeting and to seek better solutions to the problems before us. Your presence and your vote had an impact and the public hearing process worked.

I'd like to take a moment to clarify a few things about the process of creating a new village law. The first step is to identify the need for the new law. In this case, the need was identified by a large number of letters and complaints over the period of many years concerning the odors from unkempt animal pens and the slaughter of animals, including the disposal of remains.

The second step is to draft the law. This process involved reviewing samples of similar laws from other nearby villages who have dealt with the same problems.

The third step is to hold a public hearing. This is a mandatory process. No law can be passed without holding a public hearing. At the public hearing copies of the proposed law are available for anyone who wants one and there should be a period of comment allowed for each resident or property owner who would like to offer their opinion. Though not mandatory, constructive discussions will often occur and the law can be improved or amended. If substantive changes are made to the law at the hearing or after the hearing, another public hearing must be held.

The final step of passing the law can only occur after a public notice in the newspaper and the appropriate public hearings take place. To enact the law the village board must vote. A majority of the board voting yes, (3 of 5 members) would be enough to pass the new law.

What does all this means for the proposed nuisance animal control law? That we cannot hold a vote on this law unless we hold another public hearing, which I believe is unlikely and I will be asking the board to table the law to look for other alternatives.

Okay, now that we're clear on the process of making laws, I'd like to address some of the problems we encountered at our recent public hearing. Hopefully, we can avoid these next time. 1) The venue. My fault. Having never presided over a village meeting or hearing with more than 40 people in attendance, I was unprepared for the over 100 people that turned out. I will make sure that we have the appropriate venue and equipment next time. 2) Inappropriate behavior. There was a troubling occurrence during the straw poll. The people who raised their hands in support of the law as well as people who didn't vote at all endured vicious statements and finger pointing. Comments like "get their name" or "remember them" insinuated retribution against those persons not holding the opinion of the majority. Those comments scared people and were truly undemocratic, un-American, and uncalled for. No matter how difficult the issue or contentious the debate, there is room for every opinion. That is the American way and people should remember that. 3) Lack of respect for fellow residents. Village resident Ron Kerns wrote an excellent letter to this paper which summed up the lack of respect at the public hearing. Here are some excerpts: "I at no time saw any need for such disrespect… people were letting their emotions flair to a crisis level. As we drove home, my family and I discussed what we had seen. My daughter had many questions, and I told her that I thought we could have accomplished more by rationally presenting our views, and by showing respect for ourselves and others." Ron and his 12 year old daughter were both opposed to the law, but were willing to participate in a public hearing process which gives every person the right to contribute their opinion. I deeply appreciate his message and we would all do well to heed it. We have many problems to solve as a village and the more good ideas we put in the mix, the better the solutions we'll find.

Finally today, I'd like to give credit to Jerry Hines and her supporters who did a great job letting people know about the public hearing and also gathering over 110 signatures of persons opposed to the law on an informal petition.

It took us months to get to the point of proposing the law. Jerry became involved at the very end of the process right before the public hearing. It was not until she came to the meeting before the hearing that I became aware of how much the thought of losing her horses was hurting her. I still thought the hearing could be useful to get input from village residents and perhaps even some new ideas. When I saw the letter she wrote to this paper which ran the same day as the hearing entitled: "New law forces family to leave" I knew things had gone too far. But there was no turning back. The hearing was scheduled and would go on.

I opened the hearing and started by explaining the law, the problems it would address, and the fact that with input from the public, it could be changed. But the hall filled to beyond capacity and a very emotional bedlam ensued. I called for a show of hands, for, then against. The majority opposition was clear and I adjourned the hearing.

Loud arguments and heated debates erupted in every corner. The atmosphere was charged with emotion. I tried to quiet the tone of several shouting matches with little effect. It took almost a half hour for everyone to disburse. When it was time to leave rather than driving home, I drove to Jerry Hines' house because I couldn't go to sleep knowing how angry and upset she was.

They were surprised, maybe even shocked to see me at their door. We sat down and had an nice discussion at their dinner table. As the old Indian saying goes, we walked a mile in each other's moccasins. I told her that I would ask the board to table the law. She was very relieved. I also wanted her to understand that the actions we had taken were in response to numerous complaints about other properties and that the actions of the village board were never intended to harm anyone. She and her family agreed that perhaps they could have participated a little more in village government, that way they would have known what was happening long before the law ever got to a public hearing.

Finally, I wanted Jerry and her family to know that we were just people trying to serve the village, stuck with the most difficult of problems… regulating disrespectful neighbors. As I left, they had a much better understanding of me and of how the law made it to the public hearing, and I understood how badly the process had distressed Jerry.

Jerry, her husband and her parents are fine people and I am thankful that we were able to sit and talk as friends and fellow villagers.

Answers to difficult problems are not always black and white. The more input we get from village residents, the better our solutions will be. My goals when I became mayor three years ago were simple, always be fair and leave the village a better place then when you became mayor. I'm still trying.

As always, all meetings are public and your ideas are welcome. It's our village, let's make it better.

Roy Reehil, Mayor
Village of Cleveland, New York

Other Articles Online:

Refuting a pollution and negligence law suit, May 1996
The Village News, Spring 1995: An Introduction & Dissolution Issues
Does Anybody Care? May 16, 1995
The Dissolution Petition
Memorial Day 1995
New Budget Reduces Taxes
Labor Day 1995
Optimism in November
An Answer to the Petition to Dissolve, January 1996
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Copyright Roy Reehil, 2004