By Mark Fischenich
---- — MANKATO — Owners of one or two dogs — not just those with a houseful of canines — could be affected by changes in Mankato animal policies, particularly if their pup is a boisterous barker.
A Mankato City Council discussion of dog issues, which followed complaints about a seven-dog household on Haynes Street, has prompted some impending changes in how city staff will handle cacophonous canines. No longer will a police officer have to personally hear a howling hound for a dog owner to get a threatening letter from the city.
The city's current approach to noisy dogs is to encourage annoyed residents to call 911. If an officer arrives before the dog has stopped barking, the dog owner is typically given a warning and the incident is noted in city records. If the warning doesn't fix the problem, the process is repeated — the resident calls 911, an officer personally verifies that the dog is causing a disturbance — and the dog owner is issued a citation and a small fine.
The policy has several flaws, according to residents of Haynes Street, where some people have been seriously perturbed by a neighborhood home shared by five Doberman pinschers, a Dalmatian and a black Lab.
First, there's a deep-seated reluctance to dial 911 short of a life-threatening event.
"I grew up in a place where you only call 911 in an emergency," said Rosemary Krawczyk, whose Haynes Street bedroom is just feet from the exercise and toileting area of the seven dogs next door. "... It's just a hard adjustment to make."
Second, even if 911 is called, barking dog complaints are inevitably a lower priority for police officers than assaults, medical emergencies and other calls they might be dealing with.
Third, even if they respond, they might not arrive until after the dog has been brought inside or otherwise quieted.
In any of those instances, a complaint by a neighbor currently prompts no further action by the city.
Under the new system, which City Manager Pat Hentges said could be instituted administratively without further council action, the complaint would prompt a letter from the city to the property owner even if an officer doesn't verify the barking. A second complaint on a second occasion would prompt another letter, again spelling out the penalties the dog owner will face if it happens again.
If a subsequent complaint is made, an officer would attempt to verify that the dog is violating the city noise ordinance. If it is, a citation would be issued and a small fine would be imposed. A fourth complaint, also verified by an officer, would result in a misdemeanor fine of up to $1,000.
An officer must be involved at those stages because, if the dog owner contested the fine in court, due-process rules would necessitate officers being able to swear under oath that they observed the violation occurring.
"They have to hear the dog barking," Hentges said.
Warning letters from the city, however, don't need that level of evidentiary foundation. It's a technique Minneapolis uses, and those letters contain warnings of progressively larger fines of up to $2,000.
Although Hentges doubted that those gross-misdemeanor level fines would ultimately stand up in court, council members like the idea of getting the dog owner's attention early on.
"This way, at least something starts happening the first or second time," Councilwoman Karen Foreman said.
Mayor Eric Anderson, in a meeting last week with some Haynes Street residents, noted that Minneapolis defines a nuisance dog as one that has barked continuously for 20 minutes. Other cities go with five minutes. The Haynes Street residents quickly coalesced around the five-minute standard.
Hentges will be putting together the details of the new policy and giving the Highland Park Neighborhood Association, which covers Haynes Street, a chance to provide input. Association President Tona Gillispie thinks the city is on the right path.
"I like that four-step process," Gillispie said. "... It's common sense. You want to educate people and give them fair warning."
Along with the new policy, Councilwoman Tamra Rovney said police officers need to receive training about the importance — when not busy with higher-priority calls — of responding immediately to barking dog complaints. Councilman Jack Considine agreed.
"We need to revisit it with our officers," Considine said, "that this is a quality-of-life issue, and it's not something that's optional."