Animal Ordinance Fails in Branson, Missouri

The long, strange trip of a proposed animal ordinance for the city of Branson came to an emphatic end at the Jan. 11, Board of Aldermen meeting when the measure failed with a unanimous vote.

The six no votes came after years of debate, hearings, social media campaigns, and postponements.

The genesis of the changes dates back to 2018 when the Branson Police Department had to absorb the animal control responsibilities, which had been previously handled by the Taney County Health Department. According to a press release at the time, the board asked the police department to update the “severely outdated” ordinance which did not “take into account public safety or pet health.”

Changes to Chapter 14 of the city code related to animals initially came to the Board of Aldermen in September 2019, following what the police department’s spokesmen called “18 months of research and collaboration” with area experts in animal control. At the time, the staff report called the amendments a “recommendation to amend portions of Chapter 14 of the City of Branson Municipal Ordinance relating to Animals.” 

The stated goals in the initial 2019 submission to the aldermen included a licensing program for dogs and cats; a limit on the number of animals in residences and lodging establishments; revisions to commercial animal establishment regulations; updates to the vicious and dangerous dog sections; and a prohibition on exotic animals.

photo by Jason Wert/Maryville Forum

The measure came back to the board’s attention more than a year later in November 2020, when  the subject was discussed at a board study session. 

The changes were brought for a vote during the March 9, 2021 board meeting and passed on the first reading. The ordinance at this point would repeal the current Chapter 14 and replace it with a new Chapter 14 incorporating all the changes discussed over the previous years. 

Current mayor Larry Milton, then an alderman, tried to have the measure postponed at the meeting because he wanted the citizens of Branson to have “more time for public input” on the measure. However, the vote to postpone ended up deadlocked 3-3 (aldermen Bill Skains and Jeff Seay voted with Milton to postpone.) Former Mayor Edd Akers voted no to break the tie.

The measure’s final reading was postponed on March 23, 2021 to April, and then postponed again in April to August 2021, with a goal of more public feedback on the measure to aldermen. A series of town hall meetings were held in May and June on the proposed ordinance.

The final reading scheduled for Aug. 24, 2021 was postponed again until Nov.9, 2021, because the aldermen wanted a study session to discuss information from the town hall meetings. The measure was postponed a final time at the Nov. 9, 2021 meeting to Monday night’s meeting.

The measure drew little public comment at the meeting, with only Marshall Howden, a candidate for the Board of Alderman in April’s election, addressing the board regarding his concerns the changes would limit citizen freedom.

“In the first lines of the document it says ‘animal ownership is encouraged and welcomed in this city’,” Howden said. “Think about that for a second…I certainly don’t feel our rights need to be encouraged or even sanctioned by this board or any other governing body.” 

Howden said the citizens of Branson “consistently” vote for “freedom.”

“Ultimately things like licensing pets and requiring fees are things this pro-liberty citizenry as a whole are going to be against,” Howden said. “I am constantly told as a member of the Planning and Zoning Commission to let the ordinances already on the books work as they were intended. If the Commission was concerned because of the noise it would create at all hours of the night, we have a noise ordinance to take care of it. That should be the same principle at work in these instances. If a person’s pet becomes a community hazard, we already have ways to address it.”

Alderman Ruth Denham said she had concerns about the measure.

“The existing ordinance, aside from some minor definition changes, maybe some tweaks so we can make sure we meet state regulations, and inclusion of a second on exotic animals which is a great section, has thus far served the city well,” Denham said. “My position is citizens should have been allowed to dig into the existing ordinance and then been included in the decision making process of making targeted, necessary changes, which would have worked best for their community.”

Denham said she would be voting no for three reasons.

“Number one, a lack of initial transparency and inclusion of our citizens,” Denham said. “Number two, there’s too many added burdensome requirements. And number three, a possibility of unwelcome entrances into private residences. I definitely do not support throwing out the baby with the bathwater but I do support working with the original ordinance to make changes which best reflect our citizen’s needs.”

Alderman Clay Cooper said he would support amending the original ordinance as Denham expressed in her comments.

Alderman Jamie Whiteis said there was a lot in the measure and there had to be a way to “trim it down to make it more feasible.” 

Alderman Cody Fenton thanked the police chief and the police department for all their work in the measure.

“When I read through this initially, I think there was a lot of good, and there’s a lot where I just on a personal level just scratched my head,” Fenton said. “My preference, and what I’d like to see, when we had our town hall meetings, I think there is a lot of stuff which by and large most people didn’t have heartburn over.

“I think perhaps there’s a better way to approach this.”

Police Chief Jeff Matthews reiterated to the board the police department was approached to bring an updated ordinance for consideration and this is what his staff has done. 

“If the board makes a decision tonight, and we get this off of our plate one way or another, the legislative branch is working,” Matthews said. “Whatever your pleasure is tonight, whatever the reason, we stand behind it.”

Fenton said even if the measure didn’t go through, there needs to be a continued discussion because “large parts of this are needed” and the existing code was done in the mid-1990s, so it needs to be updated for what we currently need in the city.

Alderman Jeff Seay challenged Denham on her statement regarding a lack of transparency and public input on the changes.

“It wasn’t hidden from [the public],” Seay said. “They did have access to it. I don’t know if I’d have them write venomous animal or exotic animal ordinances. Input is one thing.”

Denham said she was referring to the beginning of the issue, the citizens should have been able to look at the original ordinance, and she was referring to citizen input.

Seay went on to say there was ample public input into the process for this measure.

“We had three town halls, and I think 45 people showed up, and I know for a fact 50% of those people showed up at all of them,” Seay said. “We had this down to punctuation corrections from the public. Gifting kittens and puppies. Unlimited chickens. We came this far and now we’re just moving on. 

“I’m a firm believer of taking an ordinance, putting it on the books, and dealing with the one off issues as they come up if they don’t fit. But I think people on this board and our mayor have an appetite of waiting until the dog bites the kid and then we solve the problem.”

Seay also said people on social media have been misleading the public.

“It’s obviously been thrown out on social media by potential candidates who are running for office who are using this as their mask mandate,” Seay said. “It’s unsettling to me, not only are they attempting to do it, but they’re doing it with misleading information, with incorrect information.”

City Administrator Stan Dobbins recommended the measure be voted down because city staff will be conducting an update of the 2030 plan, which will include a lot of community feedback. 

“We’ll take the opportunity at those meetings to bring back what the citizens of the community actually want,” Dobbins said. “This way we can get this all cleaned up anyway. There are so many amendments to the amendments, I’m lost.”

Skains, running the meeting in the absence of Mayor Larry Milton, said he would be voting down the measure.

“I agree to move to vote this project down tonight and include it as part of the 2030 plan primarily because of the amount of misinformation which has been thrown out about this,” Skains said. “It is disturbing to read some of the things that have been said.”

Skains cited the work of Sgt. Stanley Kauffman and Lt. E.J. Jones in researching and creating the ordinance along with answering questions from the public.

“Just remarkable to impugn the integrity of these people,” Skains said. “I was blown away.”

The vote was 6-0 to defeat the ordinance. Mayor Larry Milton was feeling ill and not in attendance to comment on the measure. However, when reached by phone by the Branson Tri-Lakes News, the mayor thought the vote brought the right outcome for the situation. 

“I was pleased it was defeated,” Milton told the Branson Tri-Lakes News. “I agree we should take our existing ordinance and add to it what’s necessary versus overreaching government. I appreciate the police chief and all the effort they put into that document, because I know they put tons of hours into that, but it’s not what our community wants. I look forward to adding what’s necessary and adding the exotic animal portion.”

After the meeting, Matthews told Branson Tri-Lakes News he feels adding the proposed changes to discussions on the 2030 plan is the right move.

“It will allow citizens to have significantly more input on the changes and make it something which better fits the community,” Matthews said.

Skains also focused on the increased input with the 2030 discussions.

“The 2030 plan will have a wide scope and allow for much more input from the citizens,” Skains told Branson Tri-Lakes News. “I’m looking forward to hearing what comes from those meetings.”

Milton agreed that the public input would be vital when reconsidering parts of the 2030 plan.

“It’s been 10 years, so I think it’s time for that to be revisited with fresh community input,” Milton said.

A city spokesman tells Branson Tri-Lakes News the meetings on updating the 2030 plan have not yet been scheduled.

By Jason Wert for Maryville Forum

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