A lengthy May 3 Town of Essex Selectboard meeting included a state-mandated vicious dog hearing.
The hearing came at the request of resident Shannon Oborne who had been attacked by a German Shepherd at her Autumn Pond Way apartment building April 25; she then submitted a complaint to the selectboard the following day. Vermont statute says a municipality must, with seven days of receiving the complaint, investigate the charges and hold a hearing on it.
The statute further reads, “If the domestic pet or wolf-hybrid is found to have bitten the victim without provocation, the municipal officials shall make such order for the protection of persons as the facts and circumstances of the case may require, including, without limitation, that the domestic pet or wolf-hybrid is disposed of in a humane way, muzzled, chained, or confined.”
A memo from Essex Deputy Manager Greg Duggan and Police Chief Support Services Director – and former police chief – Rick Garey said the selectboard could impose requirements following the hearing that included the options of:
- Doing nothing
- Issuing a warning to the dog’s owner that stricter measures will be taken for any future incidents
- Banning the dog from public areas in Essex (Dog Park, Indian Brook Park, Saxon Hill Park, etc.)
- Requiring the dog to be on leash whenever it is outside its home in Essex, including at the Dog Park and other parks where dogs are allowed
- Requiring the dog to wear a muzzle whenever it is outside its home in Essex
- Requiring the dog to be on leash and wearing a muzzle whenever it is outside its home in Essex
- Euthanizing the dog in a humane way
Oborne’s written complaint to the selectboard said the dog had “lunged” at her without provocation and bit her multiple times despite being leashed. It also said a neighbor came to assist Oborne during the incident and advised her that the dog had recently bitten someone else in the same building.
Included in the meeting packet was an Animal Complaint Form dated March 23, 2021. It said that the same dog, Titan – which is owned by Vermont State Police Trooper Nathan Quealy but is not a police canine – had bitten someone at the Autumn Pond Way complex March 19. Both victims of the two attacks required medical attention with Oborne reporting in her complaint that she suffered a hematoma and needed stitches for her arm.
Given the chance to speak before the selectboard, Oborne expressed that she didn’t want the result of the hearing being the dog’s death but would prefer to see measures taken so that the German Shepherd doesn’t have the opportunity to bite others in the future.
“On the one hand, I would hate to see an animal destroyed or euthanized. So if there’s a way to avoid that, I would love to see that happen,” she said. “On the other hand, despite muzzles and safety precautions, this dog is simply not socialized properly to be around people… Unfortunately, this dog just isn’t fit to be around strangers. So to the greatest extent, if that could be mitigated I think that that would be the best solution.”
Quealy apologized to Oborne and told her that he was “extremely humiliated” at what had happened and that it was “very embarrassing.”
“It’s been keeping me up at night for the past week,” said Quealy, whose girlfriend had been walking the dog at the time of Oborne’s attack while he was out of state according to the included police report. “I’m truly sorry, and I’m doing everything in my power to make this right.”
Quealy disagreed with Oborne’s opinion about the dog’s ability to be around other people and said that it had not acted that way in the nearly three years that he had owned Titan – until more recently. Quealy stated that he is “very focused on fixing this before it becomes a permanent behavior change.”
Quealy told the selectboard that he purchased two muzzles upon immediately returning to Essex after he learned of the incident and that Titan wears one every time he goes outside to relieve himself – as well as a shock collar and a choke collar. Quealy said he’s now the only person who will take the dog out and keeps a short lead so that he has “complete physical control.” Quealy also said he’s moving to South Burlington in less than a month.
Considering the factors in place – which include Quealy saying he doesn’t bring Titan to public areas where dogs are allowed – the selectboard unanimously agreed to the following requirements and restrictions:
- Titan needs to be muzzled and on a leash whenever outside his home.
- Titan would be prohibited from going to the Essex Dog Park and any other public areas where dogs are permitted, such as Indian Brook Park.
- Quealy is required to, within 30 days, provide proof that he has additional training for Titan scheduled for some time in the next six months to work on behavioral issues.
Here are four other takeaways from Monday’s meeting.
1. Proposed water and sewer budgets and rate changes
The proposed water budget for Fiscal Year (FY) 2022 was an increase of 3.5% while the rate for customers was increased by 2.8%, and the proposed sewer budget was an increase of 3.7% with a rate increase of 3%. Public Works Director Dennis Lutz said there were three main drivers to the total budget cost:
- Salary, overtime, and benefits.
- The rate at which customers need to purchase water from the Champlain Water District.
- The cost for the town to treat water at the village’s wastewater treatment plant.
The first item accounted for about a third of the total budgetary increase while the second two totaled an approximated 50% of the increase.
For the average single-family residence in town – using about 200 gallons per day – the increase comes to $32.85 per month.
Before the FY22 budgets and rates were unanimously approved by the selectboard, Lutz reminded the public that billing will now happen three times each year – instead of two – and cautioned people not to assume that their usage has gone down based on the first billing amount they see.
During the public hearing portion, Lutz was asked if there was asbestos in the town’s water lines. He explained that there are some sections in the town that have asbestos cement lines which date back to the 1950s and ‘60s, but he stated that, “Those water lines pose no threat to anyone.” Lutz said the lines are sealed and are constantly tested – but also that asbestos is only dangerous if inhaled and is not dangerous if ingested.
Lutz further explained that the main issue the Environmental Protection Agency has moving forward is lead in the water lines. He said that is not a problem for the main lines in Essex but that it is in some of the lines that feed the older houses – such as in Fort Ethan Allen where the lines were installed around the turn of the 20th century. Lutz said those lines will probably have to be replaced at some point in the next few years.
2. Request for selectboard members’ digital communications
Following its April 19 meeting, the selectboard received a request from Essex resident Bill Silverstrim to have copies of any text messages and Facebook Messenger chats made by selectboard members during recent meetings disclosed to the public.
The issue for the board, however, was that it was a direct request outside of the formal public records request process and asked the selectboard to divulge those communications on its own proactively. The request stemmed from selectboard members Patrick Murray and Vince Franco apologizing at that April 19 meeting for privately texting during the board’s March 25 meeting, and it looked to find out if their actions were “a ‘one off’ and not systemic in nature.”
After hearing from a few members of the public, including Silverstrim, the selectboard opted to wait and hold discussion on the issue during an executive session later in the meeting. Following that executive session which lasted about an hour and 20 minutes, the board unanimously approved treating Silverstrim’s request as a formal public records request and authorized staff to respond accordingly.
3. Human Services Funding allocation
Approved by voters at 2020 Town Meeting Day, Essex had $153,322 in the FY21 budget to allocate to human services organizations. That was 1% of the town’s General Fund Budget and continues a tradition of supporting those agencies which dates back to a policy adopted in 1987.
A committee of eight volunteers was recently tasked with reviewing applications and then making a recommendation about how to best distribute the funding based on the constructed guidelines.
“It’s 1% of the town’s budget, but we take this very seriously,” said Unified Manager Evan Teich. “We want to make sure that this money is helping our community and those within it – and that there is transparency and that these are agencies that are working hard on behalf of our residents and our businesses. And I think it shows in the work.”
The town saw a 53% increase in requests for funding this time around compared to last year – a total of $241,865 being sought by 33 applicants. Because of that disparity, the review committee recommended giving partial funding to 22 applicants who ranked the highest in the committee’s weighted scoring process. The selectboard unanimously approved the recommendation.
Receiving at least 90% of their ask and the amounts allocated to them were:
- Voices for Inclusion in Essex and Westford – $22,575
- UVM Health Network Home Health & Hospice – $22,570
- Essex C.H.I.P.S. – $18,075
- Committee on Temporary Shelter – $9,075
- Spectrum Youth Family Services – $9,075
- Age Well – $9,075
- Aunt Dot’s Place – $7,275
- Howard Center – $6,825
- Steps to End Domestic Violence – $6,177
- EJU Ecumenical Ministry – $4,125
- Chittenden Community Action Housing Assistance – $2,325
Receiving 75% of their ask and the amounts allocated to them were:
- Vermont Foundation of Recovery – $7,500
- Pathways Vermont – $7,500
- Feeding Chittenden – $3,750
- Turning Point Center of Chittenden County – $3,750
- Joint Urban Ministry Project – $3,000
- LUND – $2,625
- National Alliance on Mental Illness – $2,250
- Vermont Adult Learning – $2,250
- Vermont Center for Independent Living – $1,500
- Vermont CARES – $1,125
- H.O.P.E. Works – $900
Funding for VIEW is contingent on the organization completing the process of becoming a 501(c)(3) nonprofit – a requirement for any agency to be considered.
“I also forgot to thank the citizens of the community,” Teich added after thanking the committee members for their work. “It is pretty darn cool that they give 1% of the budget – this year, $155,000 – to the people of need and other needs throughout the community.”
The selectboard also unanimously approved five focus areas for 2022 human services funding:
- Access to health and behavioral health
- Affordable housing or housing assistance
- Child or family support for healthy relationships
- Diversity, equity, and inclusion
- Emergency food and disaster relief
4. Transferring funds to the Village of Essex Junction for exploration of separation
Town staff posed an idea to the selectboard: Taking a portion of the approximated $70,000 that remains from the money set aside for work on merger and transferring it to the Village of Essex Junction for its costs associated with pursuing separation from the town.
In a memo to the selectboard, the recommendation was made to transfer 42% of that amount – around $29,400 – to represent the 42% of the town’s total Grand List that is in the village.
Board members’ thoughts and opinions varied.
Dawn Hill-Fleury: “Given that the money originally came from surplus funds and was designated for merger, and the merger issue is a moot fact now, I feel that those funds should be returned to the surplus and maybe designated later on.”
Franco: “I’m more in favor of [giving 42% to the village]. That kind of helps the town pay for the costs of investigating the legalities of separation without taxing the village to do it or using village tax dollars to do it.”
Murray: “We did talk about, last meeting, how it would be very difficult for us to justify: How does the village residents pay for legal fees that the selectboard is looking at? Specifically because that’s how we collect the taxes … I think it’s a respect thing. I think it’s a way for us to split it in a fairly equitable way.”
Tracey Delphia: “We haven’t decided whether to use those surplus funds for studying separation. The FY22 budget includes the entire town, not just the [town outside the village], and it’s still the duty of the selectboard to include all town residents – including those town residents who also happen to live in the village. If we do decide that these funds should be used for separation planning, preparing the town for a smooth separation will benefit all residents – including those who are also residents of the village.
“Additionally, we don’t even know what the scope is on separation. We don’t have a projected plan; we don’t have a timeline; we’re not even really sure what’s involved at this point. So I think that until we have a scope – a discussion regarding separation timeline, the scope of that, what’s included, what’s not – I really think that this discussion is premature, and I would like to have at least a skeleton of a plan before we decide how-and-if we would use these surplus funds for that purpose.”
Andy Watts: “I’m on the fence. I very much understand and see that it would certainly be a good gesture. It’s a small amount of money.”
The selectboard ultimately held off on making a decision and will likely continue the discussion in the future after getting a better understanding of the details surrounding separation.