WHITMAN — Selectmen ordered a Forest Street woman to muzzle and confine her dogs during a meeting Tuesday, Nov. 19 that also featured further discussion of budget and school district assessments.
A public hearing on a dangerous dog complaint by residents Leslie and Michael Leary of 58 Forest St., about the biting and aggressive behavior of what they described as Jill Barden’s Maltese — actually a Coton de Tulear, named Andy, Barden said — and a German shepherd that Barden said is actually a mixed breed with possible shepherd and Australian cattle dog bloodlines, named Scarlet.
Both animals are rescues.
“I did adopt the damaged ones,” Barden said.
Selectmen voted to require Barden to muzzle the dogs when on leash and otherwise keep them confined, as well as directing her to see that the dogs are properly licensed, as recommended by Assistant Animal Control Officer Joe Kenney.
“I am an animal advocate, but sitting in this chair, I have to be a citizen advocate to make sure that everyone feels safe in their home and community,” said Selectman Brian Bezanson. “I take this very seriously and you should, too.”
He said he had the sense that Barden was trying to push the responsibility off on others.
“You have to be in complete control of them 100-percent of the time,” said Bezanson, who also owns rescue dogs.
During the hearing, chaired by Assistant Town Administrator Lisa Green, the board heard testimony by the Learys, three of their neighbors, Barden and Kenney.
“There have been reports of some aggressive behavior,” Green said in introducing the case to Selectmen. “The dogs have been allowed to leave the home unleashed, [the smaller dog has] been reported to have bitten two children unprovoked,” Greed said. “A second dog has been referred to [as] biting another resident. All of these have happened off the dog owners properties and on other folks’ properties.”
She said the hearing was the result of a formal request by the Learys.
Neighbor Bob Wilhelm of 65 Forest St., said the dog issue has just occurred within the last year.
“The dog exhibits dangerous anti-social behavior,” Wilhelm said indicating the larger dog. “It seems to be fine with the owner, but as soon as someone that the dog doesn’t know or recognize [comes near] it tenses up and starts barking and growling and pulling very strongly on its lead. She jerks it and gets it back under control and continues on her way.”
He said it has happened several times this year.
Leslie Leary said her request for the hearing was prompted by an incident on July 3 when Barden’s Coton de Tulear got lose while being walked past her home and bit her 4-year-old son, who was out playing in his yard. The dog’s bite ripped the boy’s shorts and left a bruise with teeth marks on his thigh.
Barden had left the scene by the time Animal Control Officer Laura Howe arrived and, while they were talking with police, Leslie Leary said she saw the bigger dog pick the smaller dog up by the neck and drop it to the ground. Later in the hearing, Barden said that the larger dog has never attacked the smaller dog.
“The smaller dog has always been an issue,” Leslie Leary said. “We’ve had multiple calls to Laura Howe in regard to this dog not being on a leash.”
Leslie Leary also expressed concerns about the safety of children walking to the Conley Elementary School, which is also on Forest Street, as well as for the little dog’s safety as it dashes across the street at people.
“Up until tonight the ‘German shepherd’ is still not licensed,” she said, alleging that the smaller dog was not licensed until a month after it bit her son.
“The dogs’ behavior is a concern, and the owners’ callousness with just us, or the law in general, and responsible dog ownership is just as concerning,” she said.
Her husband Michael Leary said the calls to the town began after they tried to work things out with Barden two or three years ago concerning the smaller dog.
He said he has heard a report that Scarlet (the larger dog) has bitten someone, but could personally attest that Andy (the smaller dog) has bitten both him and his son and has seen bicyclists and joggers get attacked by it.
“There was no apology,” he said. “It was like it was our fault. … She needs to be held accountable. We can’t do it. It doesn’t seem like the ACO was able to do it, so that’s why we’re here today.”
Kenney said he was not present at any of the incidents but had been inside the house regarding a quarantine on the larger dog in 2017.
“The dog did lunge at me twice inside the house,” he said, noting he understood the dog was reacting to him as if he was an intruder. “My concern is that both dogs have been, in multiple cases, involved in issues.” He also expressed concern about the dogs’ proximity to the Conley School, and recommended “some kind of restrictions on the dogs to ensure proper containment” to keep the public safe.
“We do have documentation for three [post-bite] quarantines for the two dogs,” Green said, two for the Coton de Tulear and one for the larger dog.
She said MGL Chapter 140 Sec. 157 defines a dangerous dog as one that attacks without provocation, causing injury.
“We have that, unfortunately,” she said.
Barden maintained she has never lost control of Scarlet — the larger dog — and that the bite incident was actually a case of the dog jumping up and scratching a boy on the arm. She said she spoke to the boy’s family, who was very apologetic and embarrassed about the complaint.
Kenney had told her at the time that they have to treat a scratch like a bite.
“Yes, she’s hard to handle, but I do handle her,” Barden said, noting she has so far spent about $7,000 on fencing her backyard and for obedience training, first at Five Rings in Hanson and lately at Positive Dog in Boston after Scarlet had escaped from Five Rings and was lost in the area for about 24 hours. Described by Leslie Leary as fear aggressive, Scarlet instead ran from people who were trying to help find her because she was scared.
One of the Positive Dog trainers is a consultant for the Boston Police.
“Scarlet has done exceedingly well there,” she said. “She’s a top performer in class.”
Barden said her trainer did not recommend muzzling Scarlet, but favored a pronged collar as a more effective training tool. She uses the collar, as well as avoidance training when out on walks to correct the dog’s behavior.
Town Administrator Frank Lynam reviewed for Selectmen the meeting held last week with members of Hanson’s Board of Selectmen and interim Town Administrator Meredith Marini as well as the Wednesday, Nov. 13 School Committee meeting.
“It is the School Committee’s responsibility to choose which method they would use to assess,” Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski said.
“It can be,” Lynam said.
“It can be a two-step process through which the town also does it,” said Selectman Randy LaMattina. “As of now, there are a lot of variables to it.”
He said any concession or movement off Whitman’s position that the statutory assessment is the only acceptable option for the town, must take Hanson’s position into account.
“You don’t need to slam a door in someone’s face,” LaMattina said. “It’s always better to have it open and have some dialog and see where that goes.”
Lynam also said the town is trying to put a budget together, which is difficult without an assessment figure. The board also selected LaMattina and Kowalski to remain in the Regional Assessment Committee.
“The schools need to understand, that if we had to impose a budget today, we would probably be talking about a level-funded budget,” he said. “There’s a lot at stake here and we really need to get an understanding from W-H as to how we get to a point where the year after year budget is sustainable.”
Kowalski said he found the magnifying the need for a discussion on a simple frustrating. A complex issue, he said, is ensuring the schools get enough funding to do the job they need to do.
“Figuring out whether or not Hanson pays this share or who pays that share of a limited amount of money is not the end at all, it’s the very beginning,” he said.
Lynam urged that an external audit of the school district, similar to the one Whitman hired consultant John Madden to perform for Whitman.
“The value of that audit is opening eyes,” he said. “I think we should consider a similar process for W-H.”
LaMattina said Madden’s draft audit report was presented to the Budget Override Evaluation Committee Monday and a final draft will be sent to Lynam Thursday for distribution to the committee and posting.
“We’re experiencing minimal state aid increases over the last five years averaging about 2.9 percent,” he said. “However our assessment increases over the last five years are increasing 3.12 percent.” The town is about $1.5 million short in the operating budget. Sustainability of the town’s budget is also a concern.
The five-year average on the operating budget is 4.86 percent. Madden said the town is estimating local receipts a little too closely.
“If things are a little off, we could be in trouble,” LaMattina said, noting Madden recommended not using one-time revenue to keep everyone whole. “We knew we were doing that. It’s caught up at this point.”