Almaden Times Weekly
City Council denies emergency ordinance
October 7, 2004
Kymberli W. Brady, Staff Writer
An 18-month battle that looked to finally reach an end on Tuesday, instead hit another in a series of roadblocks, as an emergency ordinance that would have granted Vector Control the right to trap and remove four menacing coyotes from the Villas of Almaden failed to pass by the mandatory two thirds vote required by the City Council.
Although a 7 – 4 split favored granting the request, city policy requires that an emergency ordinance must receive two thirds of the vote in order to pass.
Despite the frightening accounts and desperate pleas of more than a dozen Villas residents and surrounding neighbors, carefully crafted and prepared speeches from six animal rights organizations managed to convince Councilmembers Reed, Williams, Compos, and LeZotte that education and human behavior modification would provide an alternative—and more humane way to alleviate the community’s coyote problem.
“I can’t support this,” explained Reed. “Because I’m looking at the Fish and Game code, section 3003.1, which says we can’t do this unless there is no other method available to protect human health and safety. I’ve heard quite a few methods described here tonight.”
“I just cannot support an action that would take a life,” added Williams. “I think the order should be reversed. We should do the public education first—get the community to change their behavior and eliminate feeding.”
While she also agreed that sufficient education efforts hadn’t been explored well enough, LeZotte’s key concern surrounded a recommendation at the end of the ordinance that read, “And initiate a permanent ordinance for the same purpose.”
While City Attorney Rick Doyle explained that it only intended to address the emergency situation based on Vector Control’s letter, the council could request to come back later with a permanent ordinance that would allow its use—only under circumstances that met specified criteria.
“The concern is that you have an absolute prohibition at this point, with no exception—even for health and safety,” said Doyle. “The idea is to come back with the health and safety exception, but it would be very narrowly tailored.”
In light of the council’s decision that affected her District 10 residents, Vice Mayor Pat Dando immediately questioned the city’s newly inherited liability.
“May I ask what the attorneys would now suggest, because we have been notified that this is a threat to health and public safety?” she said.
“I think we’re going to have to speak to Vector Control and see what our alternatives are,” replied Doyle. “We’ll report back A.S.A.P.”
Dando suggested that the report—which looks to be an interesting document, be completed in time for the next Council session on Tuesday.
Confusion raises questions
At times, the text of the ordinance itself was questioned, especially details surrounding who would be affected and for how long.
According to Jon Cicirelli, Deputy Director of Animal Care and Services, the emergency ordinance would have been temporary and apply only to the Villas, as an environmental impact report [EIR] would be needed before any permanent action could be taken.
“We haven’t gone down that path yet,” he said. “Obviously there’s a cost, there’s time—probably a year worth of study and I don’t know what that would take. To permanently change it is a much more difficult deal.”
But, Doyle’s interpretation seemed to indicate a broader radius on the trapping map.
“The proposed ordinance is to address the problem in and around the Villas, not just on the Villas property,” he explained. “It is a very narrow area, but it’s not just the Villas itself, it’s also the area around them.”
Frustration sets in
Residents said they felt like they have been sold a bill of goods—empty promises that now bear the scars of a community abandoned by their elected officials.
“We’ve done everything that the city has asked and the county has recommended,” claimed Villas Association president Bud Spadafore. “It hasn’t worked.”
“They have done everything they were asked to do,” agreed Dando. “They followed the process and have been very patient—even while being terrorized by coyotes. It’s unfortunate when people follow the democratic process and when they get to the policy makers, they get let down.”
A shadow on the process
Ironically, the order in which 24 initial speakers were called to the podium seemed to favor animal rights activists and organizations with the final word, while residents and others who had planned to speak on behalf of the ordinance, instead obliged Mayor Gonzales’ request to opt out in an effort to save time.
“The process unfortunately was manipulated and the residents are now suffering the consequences,” noted Dando. “It seemed to be organized so that the emotional pleas from the activists were made after many residents opted to surrender their time. It’s a shame the council didn’t get to hear them speak.”
The final 12 speakers, including representatives from The Santa Clara County Animal Advisory Commission, The San Jose Animal Advisory Committee, The Audubon Society, The Stanford Cat Network, The Wildlife Center of Silicon Valley, and Little Blue Society stressed the need for wildlife education, while issuing strong words to city and county animal control offices.
“Please do not follow the lead of Vector Control and Wildlife Management,” said Carol Miller, with the Santa Clara County Animal Advisory Commission. “It equates to trap and kill.”
Although both sides have valid concerns, the residents of the Villas have, for the most part, kept to their end of the deal. Additionally, they offered to release the city from any liability that would arise as a result of the padded leg hold traps and arranged to enter into a written agreement as part of their commitment to a long-term solution.
“Nobody really wants to kill coyotes,” said Spadafore. “We just have coyotes with behavior problems and we have no other choice at this point. We have been working with the city and Vector Control for months to just get something resolved.”
After the Sept. 15 community meeting, Dando, as well as the residents, left under the assumption that an official letter from the county declaring the conditions at the Villas an eminent threat would enable the city to allow Vector Control to trap. However, the City Attorney’s office refused to authorize any action.
Dando immediately put the matter on the Rules Committee agenda and during their Sept. 27 meeting, expressed confusion with regard to the approval process.
“I thought I understood that once there was a decision by the state and Vector Control that there was an eminent threat to the community, we could approve that they move ahead on a limited time basis,” she said. “I’m not suggesting that we change the policy.”
When questions were raised as to why the City Attorney’s office obviously violated their own directive by allowing Vector Control to trap three coyotes in a nearby Almaden park as early as two years ago, they denied any knowledge that trapping had been done in a manner that wasn’t consistent with the ordinance. Yet, Vector Control officer Mike Philips asserts that the city did authorize the trapping and removal of the animals.
“This is the first I’ve heard of it,” replied Doyle. “As a charter city, we have the ability to impose our own regulations. If our ordinance is this controlling, then we may not have paid attention to all of our interests.”
According to Doyle, the ordinance is an “absolute prohibition,” with no vehicle in place to legally grant consent to trap—despite assurances from Don Kelly, with the Calif. Department of Fish and Game that under the State Department of Fish and Game Code, Sec 3003.1, Subsection C allows their use, “in the extraordinary case where the otherwise prohibited, padded jaw leg-hold trap is the only method available to protect human health and safety.”
“If we deem a situation an eminent threat that allows the taking of animals, this gives municipalities the right to grant their own agents exemption under Subsection C,” Kelly explained. “And we have an eminent safety situation here.”
Vector Control officials agreed, and warned that once coyotes become urbanized and display aggressive behavior, human attacks will likely follow—the only solution is to selectively remove the animals.
“We don’t have that authority now,” Doyle reiterated. “Our municipal code doesn’t allow it. Independent of this, an emergency proposal to this amendment would effectively say we could allow this to go forward upon a showing of eminent harm and public safety.”
Even Cicirelli agreed that the ordinance, when written was short sided and leaves no room to deal with an animal—short of a sending a police officer to the scene to shoot it.
“You really don’t want to discharge a firearm in a neighborhood,” he said. “Coyotes are very difficult animals to trap and the leg hold is really the only successful means of catching them without actually shooting them. The code doesn’t allow it. At the same time, any loosening of a code about leg hold traps is going to illicit a lot of controversy in the community. There needs to be a mechanism there, but I don’t know if it’s going to be very popular with the people in the city.”
The day after
Although the decision was a victory for animal rights and the coyotes continue to roam the Villas, a serious issue still remains—one that may come back to haunt the city. According to Dando, the decision, coupled with the letter received from the state Department of Fish and Game, as well as Vector Control that stated—in an official capacity that conditions at the Villas posed an “eminent threat to public safety” may have legal ramifications.
“God forbid should anything happen to a child or another pet, it could prove to be very costly,” she said. “Not just financially to the city, but to the community that endures this. My concern is if we have future pets killed or children who continue to be threatened, that that puts us in a liable position.”