Leash law scuffles cause distemper in Hot Springs

This is not a public hearing.

All around the town of Hot Springs, notices of a May 1 committee meeting carry this subtle reminder, signifying that the board is not welcoming any feedback. The four-member panel, formed by the Hot Springs Town Council to tackle the bedroom community’s ongoing canine control issue, is subject to the same open-meeting legislation as any other public body. But these days it kind of wishes it wasn’t.

The debate over how to manage roaming dogs in this Flathead town, population 531, has grown surprisingly heated, and the committee—which seeks to review every aspect of Hot Springs’ animal control ordinance and enforcement operations—is running out of patience.

For locals, meanwhile, the simple matter of a leash law has already mutated in unimaginable ways.

As of press time, animal control in the town has been suspended indefinitely; elected Mayor Renea Keough faces possible removal from office for her alleged nepotistic handling of the situation; and the police department, chief-less since mid April, wants no part of any of it.

The crux of the matter is this: Hot Springs residents can’t agree on how much rope to give the town’s many free-roaming dogs, and can’t decide who should set the limits.

The police department thought it had an answer in February 2007 when then-chief Tim Coleman hired Marco Angelletti to occupy the lone position of animal control officer. However, in the eyes of many residents, Angelletti over-enforced the town’s leash laws, and started dispensing tickets like the Magnificent Seven dispensed shells. According to town clerk Julie Lazaro, the number of citations climbed to 21 in March, the month before officials suspended the program.

Either way, some residents complained that Mayor Keough altered the job requirements for the animal control officer position, allowing her boyfriend, Angelletti, to qualify. Keough, who has lost her sight, is currently away at a Florida life skills retreat for adults who are blind—her return date unknown. She remains unavailable for comment, but recently wrote in a community newspaper column that she changed the job requirements to get a better applicant response, not to open the door for her significant other.

Before departing for Florida, Keough left in charge Judy Berge, a Town Council member and head of the dog enforcement committee. On April 1, the Council told police to nullify all existing dog citations and to discontinue animal control services—effectively putting Angelletti out of a job.

Berge says the impetus for suspending animal services came from a series of complaints from people who suspected that Angelletti’s zealous enforcement of leash laws was financially driven.

“He was compensated 50 percent for each fine,” Berge says, explaining that the city paid the spiff. “That’s a good [compensation] method for marketing and sales, but not for animal control.”

Angelletti, for his part, says he’s retained a lawyer and plans to pursue a lawsuit to recover lost wages after his sudden dismissal, which he says was unlawful. On the advice of his attorney, the former dogcatcher declined to discuss the finer points of his claim, but says he executed his duties faithfully and adequately.

“It’s not a complicated issue—either your dog is at large or it isn’t,” Angelletti says. “They need to start holding themselves accountable instead of putting it all on me.”

The dogcatcher’s actions were hardly met with universal disapproval. Hot Springs resident Lloyd Wilkins says he was clearing some high grass with his neighbor one day when the pair came across an unwelcome sight. “There was shit here, shit there… shit, shit,” Wilkins continues, pointing at the offending piece of ground. “We don’t even have a dog.”

A transplant from Seattle, Wilkins characterizes the town’s canine libertarian front as a vocal minority, which he jokingly refers to as the ‘secret society.’ “Basically, it consists of people who think their dog should poop in other peoples’ yards instead of their own,” he muses.

However, Symes Resort owner and Town Council member Leslee Smith cautions that not all critics of the leash law crackdown are the type who let their pets roam around defiling lawns. Many are responsible citizens who simply want their dogs to be able to run free now and then. “I didn’t move out to Montana to have my dog on a leash 24-7,” Smith says, also distancing herself from the anti-Keough element. “The people who are squealing and asking for a recall are not mainstream. They’re the disgruntled few who don’t
do anything.”

With animal control services suspended, the loose dogs of Hot Springs have been left to their own devices; loners and small packs can be seen roaming the streets on any given day.

In the past, when the dogcatcher job sat vacant, the police department picked up the slack, but now it has its own problems. The force has struggled to keep its full-time staff of two officers and, as of May 1, there will only be one man on duty—Jim Matthew. As far as finding solutions to the police staffing or the dog dilemma, the interim chief says timetables haven’t entered his mind.

“I don’t have the interest or ability to comment,” Matthew laments. “I can’t have an opinion. I can’t change policy. I’m just holding it down until someone is hired to take over.”

To the outside world, meanwhile, Hot Springs will continue to exhibit its genuine charm and friendliness, which are a lot more apparent to an outsider than any rancor over canines. Despite its small size and economic struggles, it’s one of those few remaining places where people greet strangers without guile or ulterior motive.

Just before noon on a Friday, the Montana Bar on Main Street is bustling with clientele. A group of men, belly-up to the back end of the bar, hew and haw about the town’s political misadventures, and don’t mind talking about it with outsiders.

“What’s with the dogs?” we ask.

“Small town politics,” a white-haired woman quietly interjects without turning from her stool.
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