Oak Bluffs selectmen sanction dog owner, pass on cab driver

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File photo by Mae Deary

Oak Bluffs selectmen found themselves in the difficult and obviously uncomfortable role of regulator, judge, and jury at their Tuesday meeting. Following more than 90 minutes of emotional debate, the board ruled in a vicious dog hearing, and on a police request to deny a cab driver her license.

Selectmen sat with pained expressions in the Oak Bluffs library meeting room, refereeing heated arguments, reviewing gruesome pictures, and listening to sobbing testimony. Chairman Kathy Burton tried forcefully to maintain order and control of the debate. At times she succeeded; at times she didn’t.

Dog dilemma

Under Massachusetts state law, selectmen are charged with holding a public hearing to decide what, if any, sanctions should apply when a dog attacks another animal or a human. Ms. Burton underscored the graveness of the issue at the start of the one-hour hearing by swearing in the town’s police chief, animal health inspector, and the two dog owners.

Joseph Jims, who lives on Pinewood Lane, said a loose pit bull attacked his two Jack Russell terriers as he walked them on a leash near his home on the evening of May 20. In response to his yelling, the attacking dog’s owner, Damon Burke, ran out of his home and restrained his dog, which he described as an American Staffordshire terrier mix. Mr. Burke and Mr. Jims are neighbors.

The smaller dog was severely injured, according to a police report by officer Derek Back.

“I observed the Jack Russell’s rear left leg to be torn almost completely off at the hip,” Officer Back wrote.

A veterinarian later amputated the dog’s leg, and he is recovering. Jennifer Morgan, the town’s animal health inspector, said there is evidence that Mr. Burke’s dog was involved in two other attacks, though neither were reported to police or animal control officers.

“The dog attack was brutal,” Mr. Jims told selectmen. He said he still suffers anxiety attacks when he sees the dog, or sees children or other dogs in the area.

Among the exhibits submitted by Mr. Jims were pictures of the wounded dog.

“I can’t look at them,” Ms. Burton said. “I’m just not going to do it. I know this is upsetting for everybody here.”

Mr. Burke said he felt terrible about the incident, and he apologized to the Jims family. He said he has since reinforced the fence where his dog escaped from his enclosed yard, posted signs, and now keeps the dog muzzled and restrained when outside his home.

He said the same dogs were involved in another altercation two years earlier, and he said Mr. Jim’s dogs were the aggressors.

“My dog is being made out to be this monster,” Mr. Burke said. “She isn’t. My dog was attacked and antagonized regularly by my neighbor’s dog.”

He also said Mr. Jims’s reaction, kicking the attacking dog and trying to pull the dogs apart, may have caused a more serious injury.

Selectmen discussed a range of sanctions, including the possibility of ordering the dog euthanized.

“We have people who live in the neighborhood who have been traumatized beyond belief,” selectmen Mike Santoro said. “I look at those pictures and it’s sickening. I don’t hear from (Mr. Burke) that he understands. I don’t think a muzzle or ordering the dog fenced is going to give them any satisfaction. I’m not about euthanasia, but I don’t think this dog should be in Oak Bluffs, and I don’t want to put it in another town.”

Selectman Gail Barmakian said she was troubled by the nature of the attack, but did not favor euthanasia.

“The propensity of the dog obviously wasn’t to defend, it was to kill,” Ms. Barmakian said. “Keeping a dog muzzled at all times, that gives me a sense of comfort. Euthanasia is extreme. I think steps can be taken to protect the public.”

As selectmen Greg Coogan spoke quietly, prior to the board’s vote, the room fell silent.

“I think I’ve had a dog pretty much every minute of my life,” Mr. Coogan said. “Nobody can guarantee us that this can never happen again, because somebody could make a mistake, as has happened in the past. Dogs do things we don’t anticipate. Regardless of what we do, you need to think about why that dog needs to be on your property, and whether that’s the best thing for you and your dog, or whether there’s an alternative,” he said, speaking directly to Mr. Burke.

The board voted, by a 4 to 1 margin, to declare the dog a nuisance by reason of its vicious disposition, a declaration that provides a legal foundation for further sanctions if the dog attacks again. The board also ordered Mr. Burke to post a $200 bond, to be forfeited if he does not comply with the selectmen’s order. They ordered the dog muzzled and leashed at all times while outside Mr. Burke’s home, including when in his fenced-in yard.

Selectmen Mike Santoro was the dissenting vote.

Cab conflict

Immediately after the vicious dog hearing, selectmen pitched into another emotional dispute. Police chief Erik Blake recommended that selectmen, who act as the regulating authority for cab licenses, deny renewal of a cab driver’s license to Curvy Ann Torain.

Chief Blake told the board Ms. Torain was arrested on May 13, after driving the wrong way up Dukes County Avenue, parked her Tisbury Taxi sideways across the road, and attacked her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend. He said the investigating officer determined that Ms. Torain was the primary aggressor.

In a sobbing voice, Ms. Torain told selectmen a different story. She said both her ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend harassed and attacked her.

“I have two kids to take care of,” Ms. Torain. “I try to get other jobs, I get only promises. I’m just asking for a fair chance, I just want to go back to work.”

Chief Blake said that selectmen had the authority to deny renewal of the license, which was expired at the time of the incident.

“It’s in the best interest of the town,” Chief Blake said. “We don’t want taxi drivers driving the wrong way down the street to attack their ex-boyfriends. She was on duty driving the taxi.”

Several selectmen said the law was unclear, and they were reluctant to deny the license while the case is still open in Edgartown District Court, and that Ms. Torain had not been convicted of any assault charges.

They rejected the police department’s recommendation, at least temporarily, by voting to renew Ms. Torain’s license for two weeks. They will review the case at their next meeting on June 26.

The vote was 4 to 1, with Mr. Santoro dissenting.

Parking tussle

The next item on the agenda was a recommendation from the roads and byways committee to reduce parking time on Sea View Avenue Extension along the North Bluff from four hours to two hours. Residents of the area argued that it was an unreasonable burden on people who live there, while selectmen said they wanted to encourage more people to patronize downtown businesses, and discourage people who work in those businesses from occupying a parking space from early afternoon to the end of the evening.

After a lengthy and spirited debate, selectmen voted to reduce the parking time to two hours, by a vote of 4 to 1, with Ms. Barmakian at first abstaining, but then changing her vote to no.

The next item on the agenda was an application to open a new business, Gwen’s Wampum Jewelry, at 55 Circuit Avenue, which selectmen quickly approved, with good wishes all around.

“Thanks for being a really fun agenda item,” Ms. Burton told business owner Gwen Nichols. “It’s been a challenging meeting.”