Topic: Jenny Fortune
PAWS told to 'cease and desist'
County commissioners tell animal control agency to stop using rabies data to collect license fees
Tuesday January 22nd, 2008
FORT WALTON BEACH — After weeks of negative reaction, Okaloosa County commissioners on Tuesday ordered the Panhandle Animal Welfare Society to stop collecting rabies vaccination data from veterinarians and mailing notices to pet owners that a license fee is due.
The uproar started earlier this month when commissioners voted for PAWS collect rabies vaccination information from vets and use the data to collect a $10 annual licensing fee from dog and cat owners. The county has had an ordinance in place since 1992 that requires households to pay the fee to help fund animal control services.
Commissioners nearly voted to do away with the ordinance altogether when Commissioner James Campbell suggested they repeal the fee because of historically low participation.
Eliminating the fee was discussed but no formal motion was made to do so.
“I certainly don’t have a warm and fuzzy feeling about what we’ve done today,” Campbell said. “I don’t think we’ve accomplished today everything that we could. Obviously, the system we’ve got now is not working.”
DEBI HAUSSERMANN | Daily News
Dr. Jenny Fortune of Niceville Animal Clinic speaks to Okaloosa County Commissioners on Tuesday morning about the power given to PAWS and its effect on private veterinarians' clients in Okaloosa County.
In addition to issuing PAWS a cease and desist order, commissioners authorized their staff to schedule a workshop in February or March for local veterinarians, PAWS representatives and residents to try to come up with a final answer on the licensing fee.
The workshop will also discuss the best way for the Okaloosa County Health Department, which investigates animal bites, to have access to veterinarians’ rabies records.
Currently, each veterinarian keeps his or her database and the Health Department contacts them where there is an animal bite. Commissioner John Jannazo said there should be one secured database that the Health Department can access around the clock.
Two local veterinarians announced days after the County Commission’s vote earlier this mouth that they would not turn over their rabies vaccination data to PAWS.
As a result, PAWS filed complaints against Dr. Jenny Fortune of Niceville Animal Clinic and Dr. Forrest Townsend of Bayside Hospital for Animals with the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation. The complaint seeks to have their veterinary licenses revoked for not complying with a state statute related to turning over the rabies data.
The complaints would have been irrelevant and likely dismissed if the commissioners had voted to repeal the $10 animal license fee. But Tuesday’s action does not do that, said attorney Michelle Anchors, who is representing Townsend.
“The commissioners had it within their grasps to solve the problem today,” Anchors said. “At best, they have delayed that opportunity.”
Anchors filed a class-action lawsuit last week in Circuit Court against the county, PAWS and its animal services director, Dee Thompson-Poirrier. The lawsuit seeks to have the commission’s vote declared unconstitutional, invalid and unenforceable.
The lawsuit contends that PAWS’ only interest in the vaccination data is collecting the licensing fee, which perverts the intent of the state law. Anchors said the statute states that the agency that investigates animal bites should have access to the rabies data. In Okaloosa County, that is the Health Department, not PAWS.
However, Thompson-Poirrier argued that her organization needs the rabies vaccination data. She said her animal control officers normally respond first to animal bites and are usually responsible for catching animals that attack people.
PAWS contracts with the county to provide animal control services.
The county’s animal control ordinance gives PAWS’ officers the authority to go onto any public or non-fenced private property to enforce county codes or state statutes related to animal control. The officers can go into private fenced areas, excluding homes, “when the animal being sought was at large immediately prior to the animal control agency or officer receiving a sworn complaint regarding a violation, but subsequently the animal returned to its owner's or custodian's fenced private property; provided, however, that an attempt to contact the owner or custodian, if known, was unsuccessful,” according to the county ordinance.
The county ordinance also allows PAWS’ officers to carry tranquilizer guns and issue citations and notices to people to appear in court for violations of animal control regulations.
While PAWS calls itself a private nonprofit organization on its Web site, the county funds $363,211 of its budget. County Manager Jim Curry said he would have to consult with the county attorney to determine if county funding of requires PAWS to operate under Florida’s Sunshine Law.
Daily News Staff Writer Dusty Ricketts can be reached at 863-1111, Ext. 1448.