RW Council spent $2000 trying to kick dog out of Town Hall

RIDGEWAY – Recent conversations in Ridgeway Town Council executive sessions have, by several accounts, gone to the dogs. At least to one dog in particular – a Rottweiler named Bella who, for the last four years, has accompanied her owner, Town Clerk Vivian Case, to work every day at The Century House. There, Case told The Voice, she is usually the only person in the building. Both Case and Council sources say there has been no history of complaints or problems concerning Bella’s presence at Town Hall.

But all that changed in January of this year when Mayor Charlene Herring and Councilman Doug Porter issued Bella a pink slip, saying Council had made the decision, based on recent complaints about Bella’s behavior and breed, that she could no longer come to the office with Case even though the two are separated from the public by a locked lower half of the room’s entrance door and a glass partition and iron jail bars replacing the top half of the door.  So Case left Bella at home beginning in mid-January.

Already possessing separate certificates for three levels of obedience training as well as a certificate proclaiming that she passed the prestigious American Kennel Club ‘Canine Good Citizen’ test, Bella came back to ‘work’ in late February with a note from a doctor explaining to Council that she (Bella) would be fulfilling the role of service dog to Case and would need to accompany and have access to Case during the work day.

In response, Council hired an attorney to advise them regarding Bella. That advice, according to Herring, led to Bella being crated and placed on the far side of the room from Case, effectively leaving the dog unable to perform her duty as a service dog.

While the attorney’s fees are approaching $2,000 and climbing, they are being paid out of the Town’s coffers.  Should Case choose to fight Town Hall, she will have to bear her own legal expenses.

Herring told The Voice that it was approved by Council that the dog must be crated even though it is a service dog because of its classification as a viscious animal according to the Town’s Ordinance Number 2-1010. She said the dog seems nice enough, but that the ordinance is breed specific.

“Based on the breed of the dog and the research our attorney found, the dog has to stay kenneled until she (Case) chooses another dog with less liability,” Herring told The Voice.

That is not a possibility, Case told The Voice.

After acquiring a copy of the town ordinance, however, The Voice found no mention of specific breeds, and Bella’s history does not meet any of the specifications of ‘viscious animal’ as outlined in the ordinance.  The only breed-specific Ridgeway Town Ordinance is No. 2-1011, a Pit Bull Registry that requires only Pit Bulls living in the town limits to be registered with the town. No mention is made of Rottweilers.

To combat local ordinances that are breed specific as to service dogs, the Department of Justice ruled in 2010 in Subpart A, Section 35.104 that “The Department of Justice (DOJ) does not believe that it is either appropriate or consistent with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to defer to local laws that prohibit certain breeds of dogs based on local concerns that these breeds may have a history of unprovoked aggression or attacks.”

In accordance with HIPPA laws, The Voice is not disclosing Case’s disability.

In addition, Herring told The Voice, “Council approved us to go this route (crating Bella). We’ve had full approval.”

Noting that there was no public record of such a vote, The Voice asked Herring if the vote was in executive session, Herring responded, “We didn’t vote in executive session. We came out (to vote).

Asked why there is not a public record of Council voting on the matter in public session, Herring answered,” I used the wrong word.”

According to Council sources and meeting minutes, none of the orders, decisions, discussions or ‘votes’ that Herring and some other council members say were made by Council in regard to Bella’s removal and crating were made in public. According to the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, it is illegal for Council to make decisions or conduct straw polls behind closed doors in executive session.

Section 30-4-70 (6) of the FOIA states, “The only actions that can be taken in executive sessions are to adjourn or return to public session. No informal polling about a course of action may be taken in executive session.”

Council members who have spoken with the Voice, both on and off the record, are in disagreement about who made the complaints against Bella, how many were made and when.

Case says the complaints are frivolous and unsubstantiated.

The next Ridgeway Town Council meeting is scheduled for Thursday evening, July 13, at 6:30 p.m. in The Century House. The public is invited.