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South Portland City Council puts future of dogs on Willard Beach in voters' hands

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South Portland City Council puts future of dogs on Willard Beach in voters' hands

SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council voted unanimously to let residents decide the fate of dogs on Willard Beach.

Voters will be asked on Nov. 3 to consider banning dogs from the beach from April 15 to Oct. 15 and allowing leashed access during the remaining months. The current law allows off-leash access for dogs under voice control all day from September through April and from 7-9 a.m. and 7-9 p.m. during the summer.

There were only a handful of residents present at Monday night's meeting for an issue that previously generated standing-room-only crowds and spirited debates. 

Ledge Road resident Dan Mooers commended the group that spearheaded the petition drive, Save Willard Beach, for seeking a democratic resolution to an issue that has divided the community. 

"The people of South Portland are very intelligent; they will make the right decision," Mooers said. "I don't know what that is, but they will make the right decision."

Tanner Street resident Gary Crosby led the petition drive to put the question on the ballot. He said it took only a couple of months for 30 volunteers to collect more than a 1,000 signatures, which came from people on both sides of the issue. 

"Whether they were for or against the ordinance, they wanted the chance to have their voices heard," Crosby said.

A few members of the South Portland Dog Owners Group attended Monday's council meeting, but did not address the council. On Wednesday, DOG President Crystal Goodrich said the group had a list of 100 volunteers ready to go door to door. The group is also fundraising so it can roll out a political campaign.

"We are going to work very hard to defeat this referendum" Goodrich said.  

City councilors were pleased to wash their hands of the dog debate. 

"I couldn't be happier that this is on the agenda tonight," Councilor Linda Boudreau said. "I think this is our one opportunity in South Portland to get a decisive and final decision on this."

With no state or presidential elections on the November ballot, Boudreau said, "it could be all about dogs in South Portland."

The city has struggled over the years to reach a compromise that was fair to both dog owners and beach-goers who dislike dogs. The ordinance changes were instituted this spring after a task force studied the health and safety issues of human and dog interactions on the beach. Those changes included adding evening hours for dogs, strengthening the definition of voice control and instituting fines for those who do not comply with the rules. 

Although the voters will now ultimately decide the fate of dogs on Willard Beach, councilors stressed that the work done by the task force was not wasted. 

"That process cleared away a lot of the underbrush" of the debate, Councilor Tom Coward said, noting that he hasn't received any dog-related complaints since the ordinance was changed. "What happens this summer on the beach will be the best argument for both sides."

Mayor Tom Blake said he looks forward to what he hopes will be a spirited, public debate about the issue. 

"Let's be as positive as possible and take the high road," Blake said.

Angst over Anderson

Also Monday, the council, with only six members present, split over an impromptu motion by Councilor Jim Hughes to waive its standing rules and apologize to Public Works and Cultural Services Director Dana Anderson, who was placed on administrative leave during two investigations of his departments.

A financial review concluded that there were no anomalies in Anderson's records; the findings of a report into complaints lodged against a former employee have not been publicly released. Anderson's attorney, Gregg Frame, said that report also exonerated his client and City Manager Jim Gailey said Monday the city is meeting with Frame about Anderson's return to work. 

Councilors Boudreau and Maxine Beecher supported Hughes' motion to apologize, but Mayor Tom Blake and Councilors Soule and Coward voted against it. 

Boudreau said Anderson had "graciously agreed" to be placed on administrative leave. 

"This was a very difficult time," Boudreau said. "I think it shows all of us how quickly someone can do something that isn't favorable and the sky can fall on them. I think, in some way, that's what happened with this."

Soule said he was "very uncomfortable" discussing personnel matters in public and reminded the public that Hughes, Beecher and Boudreau had blocked an earlier attempt to discuss the issue privately. 

"I think it's a little hypocritical to start discussing personnel matters in public," Soule said. 

Coward defended the city's handling of the matter and said if both reports cleared Anderson, then he should return to work as soon as possible. 

"I think the actions the city has taken in relation to Dana Anderson have been appropriate and measured," Coward said. 

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net