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Helena City Commission updates animal ordinance, discusses city manager candidates

Posted at 12:00 AM, Jul 14, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-14 13:12:32-04

The Helena City Commission has given final approval to a major overhaul of the city’s animal control ordinance.

City leaders say the new ordinance will make rules clearer and easier to enforce.

The first main change will be creating a specific offense for a dog that bites or attacks another animal or human. Currently the city doesn’t have such an offense in its code. Authorities have been handling those cases under the “nuisance animal” provision, which they say is more vague.

The new ordinance will also create a process under which the city can ask the Helena Municipal Court to order an owner to give up a dog that has been designated as dangerous, if they are not meeting the city’s requirements. Leaders say that change will reduce the amount of time those animals need to be held at the Lewis and Clark Humane Society.

Finally, it will establish objective criteria for violations involving barking dogs. A dog owner can be found in violation if the dog makes noise continuously, on three separate occasions in a week, for longer than 30 minutes at one time or for longer than a combined 60 minutes in a 12 hours period.

During Monday’s meeting, the commission approved several additional amendments. One, proposed by Commissioner Emily Dean, added additional specifics about when a dog could be designated as dangerous. The ordinance will now give animal control officers the authority to make that designation if the dog approaches a person with an “attitude of attack” – defined as “behavior of a dog that leads a reasonable person to believe the dog is going to inflict injury upon the person or another.”

City Attorney Thomas Jodoin said making animal control rules clearer would help the city resolve these cases.

“If we can point to these behaviors – the growling, the barking, the baring of teeth, the posture, the hackles, the lunging and the nipping – it makes it easier for my office to pursue that,” he said.

The commission also held two special meetings Monday afternoon. In one, they narrowed down the list of candidates to become Helena’s next permanent city manager.

In a closed session, commissioners considered 13 applicants for the position. They then selected a group of candidates they wanted to interview. The city will conduct the first round of interviews virtually. The commission will then choose a smaller number of finalists who will travel to Helena next month for in-person interviews.

The candidates are seeking to be the permanent replacement for former city manager Ana Cortez, who left the position in February. Melinda Reed is currently serving as interim city manager.

Leaders did not announce how many candidates they chose during Monday’s meeting. Jenn Reichelt of the Novak Consulting Group, who is working with Helena on the hiring effort, said cities typically choose four to six applicants for initial interviews.

Commissioners said they prefer to have the interviews open to the public. Commissioner Andres Haladay said one plan would be to inform the selected candidates and give them the option to consent to the open process or withdraw their name.

“Is it possible we’d lose someone who doesn’t want their employer to know that they’re actively looking – yes,” he said. “It’s a balance.”

The COVID-19 pandemic will have an impact on the hiring process. When Cortez was hired in 2018, the city held a public open house with the candidates. This year, they are looking instead at creating a community panel to provide input.

“I do think that we can probably put together a stakeholder panel of thought leaders and representatives from around the community,” said Dean. “It might be a good way to have more of that in-depth conversation, since a community open house is, I think, off the table.”

Reichelt said the current plan was to have final interviews in Helena the weekend of August 15 and 16.

In addition, the commission voted to expand its challenge to an attempted recall of the mayor and two city commissioners.

Recall petitions are currently circulating against Mayor Wilmot Collins and Commissioners Haladay and Heather O’Loughlin, claiming that they violated public meeting requirements when hiring Reed as interim city manager.

The city filed suit to block the petitions earlier this month, arguing the commission had provided all required opportunities for public comment and participation before the final decision. During Monday’s meeting, Jodoin also said the acts mentioned in the petitions were not “individual acts” by the officials and are not valid reasons for a recall.

Jodoin asked the commission to approve an amended complaint in the case, adding the petitions’ sponsor as a named party in the case.