More than 83 letters and e-mails were sent. More people showed up than could be seated. An hour-and-a-half’s worth of speaker slips were turned in.
All of it for one presumably innocent question on the Del Mar City Council agenda: Whether the council should support the passage of California Assembly Bill 1634.
Supporters call it the California Healthy Pets Act. Opponents call it the Pet Extinction Act. The bill would fine dog and cat owners who don’t spay or neuter their pets before six months of age, with some exceptions. (And, however you call it, the would-be law itself is temporarily neutered, after its author, Assemblyman Lloyd Levine, D-Van Nuys, tabled it July 11 during a Senate committee meeting.)
There were picketers along Camino Del Mar and colorful buttons and T-shirts and signs — foretelling the disappearance of mutts (or the solving of a humanitarian crisis); championing the success of similar policies (or the opposition of vets); complaining about a nanny government (or a problem ignored by the system too long).
Mayor Carl Hilliard received a brick of blue slips requesting a chance to address the City Council: thirty requests for input at three minutes each equals 90 minutes of comments — yikes. So he suspended the normal rules. Each side would get nine minutes to speak. Neither complained.
“We can’t encourage our way out of this problem with a carrot,” Encinitas City Council Member Maggy Houlihan urged. “We pay with our taxes, the animals pay with their lives.”
“It’s punitive against responsible pet owners but does nothing to address people who aren’t responsible,” Kensington veterinarian Patty Ungar complained of the bill. “It’s a local problem, not a state problem.”
But the neat-and-tidy nine minutes for each side soon broke down. The opposition, which took the podium second, used more time, leading Hilliard to give the bill’s proponents a chance to speak again. Thus began the evening’s weird devolution.
One supporter, addressing a local vet who said 95 percent of the thousands of pets in his database were already taken care of, said it wasn’t Del Mar or Rancho Santa Fe residents for whom the bill was intended, but pet owners “in City Heights, National City and Chula Vista.”
Opponents in the crowd shuddered. “Is that racist?” one of them asked. “Is she saying people from the south are ghetto?”
As the audience erupted, Hilliard banged away with his gavel. But the ugly, call-and-response rhythm continued, spoiling any high ground left for either side to claim.
The proponents turned to refuting the opposition’s refutation of their original arguments — a counter-counter-punch, by my count. (No further hard evidence was verbally offered by either side.)
“Santa Cruz is a proven area where this has worked,” one supporter said.
A chorus of “Nooooo” came from the audience, drowning her out. The three vets in attendance joined in. Thirty people shook their heads at once.
“Whatever Patricia Ungar said is completely false,” shot back one proponent a bit later.
Somehow the opposition — whose chatter already threatened to drown out the podium microphone — managed to summon even more indignation. The scrap continued.
Needless to say, the whole thing lasted way more than 18 minutes.
And it appears that when it comes to the passions incited by this issue, Del Mar’s Puppy Punch-out was a representative sample. The Los Angeles Times reported that a staffer for the committee that ultimately sidelined the bill had “never seen so much response to a piece of legislation.” A couple of Del Mar City Council members later said they hadn’t, either.
But upon further examination, the setting of Puppy Punch-out seems rather curious.
Ronnie Steinau, who agendized the issue, lives in Encinitas.
None of the other speakers gave a Del Mar address.
The packed crowd looked completely unfamiliar.
Turns out that not a single resident of the City of Del Mar offered input — written or spoken — on agenda item No. 6.
While city representatives patiently sat through snarky conspiracy theories and spats over shelter statistics, city business got to wait.
While dozens of folks had nothing better to do with their Monday evenings than argue over state politics (a fine hobby by me), the issue elicited the passions of exactly zero residents in this comfortable seaside hamlet.
Wait. How did the AB1634 blood sport make it to Del Mar, anyway?
In most municipalities, any person can address the city council for a few minutes (usually three) with little fanfare. Just fill out a slip with your name, wait your turn, and step up to the podium.
But because of the Brown Act, which regulates the running of public meetings, city councils can almost never respond or comment on the views aired during public comment. While this often irritates uninitiated public speakers, it also ensures that legislative bodies can only take action or discuss issues that appear on a published agenda.
Residents of the smallest city in San Diego County, however, have other expectations for their government. Any person — “Del Martian” or no — can place an item on the Del Mar City Council agenda. They’ll get their three minutes to speak, as they would have during public comment, but they’ll also get the dessert of potentially having the council respond (and take action) on whatever issue they’re raising.
“From my perspective it’s very useful to have the public have that kind of access to their council, and we’re such a small city our citizens expect to have access to us,” the mayor.
The differences in meeting rules weren’t lost on Encinitas resident Steinau, who said she went to Del Mar specifically because she knew the council could take action on her issue and perhaps send a supportive letter to state Sen. Christine Kehoe.
But Steinau — and even a couple council members — didn’t realize that getting on the (web-) posted agenda could bring legions of the bill’s opponents out of the woodwork. Some drove from Palm Springs to sit in the cramped TV studio where the Del Mar council meets. Letters came from as far away as Sherman Oaks.
“I don’t know how they found out, but they did … they came and caused me a lot of aggravation,” Steinau said. “I apologized to the city for having this kind of a circus.”
(For bill opponents, the freak show worked. Flustered by so much passion over an issue about which the council was clearly less-than-well-informed, its members got deer-in-the-headlights syndrome. Their only action: a limp letter to Kehoe saying Del Mar believes animal euthanasia is a cruel problem, and spaying and neutering a good solution.)
Hilliard, who later seemed rather entertained by the whole evening’s spectacle, said it’s worth a few minutes of verbal boxing to keep the council’s discussions open.
“They know that our meetings are televised and it provided a public forum to express their views,” he said. “If you could get in front of the San Diego City Council with this sort of process, obviously you’d get a lot more press coverage … but we were the one that was available and we’ve opened our doors to that process.”
Well, at least the city takes its larger civic duty with due gravitas. At least Hilliard does.
“I sort of made an attempt at humor by pointing out that the largest representative of the breeder’s group was the Great Dane Society,” he chuckled. “It’s the first time I’ve really used that gavel.”