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Augusta County leaders fail to address animal control law issues, declare victory, move on

Chris Graham
happy dog on leash
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The Augusta County Board of Supervisors, in a, and stop me if you’ve read this one before, it was a 6-1 vote, big surprise there, passed a series of amendments to the county’s animal control ordinance – amendments that, unfortunately, still don’t address the issues with animal control in the county that have been hotly debated for the past year.

The intent of the Augusta County 6 in this at Wednesday night’s BOS meeting was clear: let’s just declare victory and move on.

“This has been this has been going on for months and months and months,” said Butch Wells, who represents the Beverley Manor District on the BOS. “It started out as a serious accusation against all seven board members, even though one member made the accusation and included all seven of us. We have argued, we have discussed, we have beat this thing in the ground as far as we can beat it. In fact, I even went to (County Administrator Tim Fitzgerald) and said, Get all the parties together in one room and hash this out so we can put this behind us and move forward. We’re getting ready to build a new animal shelter. We don’t need a cloud hanging over us.”

The board member that Wells mentioned who made the “serious accusation” is Scott Seaton, who represents the Wayne District, and first raised the issue with the county’s animal control ordinance last spring, after it emerged that the regional animal shelter had euthanized a county woman’s dog that had been picked up for running at large after being spooked by noise from a nearby structure fire.

The dog was being held at the shelter until the owner could pay the fine for running at large.

The outcry over the decision to kill the dog brought to light the legality of the fees that have been assessed, apparently illegally, for decades.

Seaton pressed the fee issue with fellow supervisors, but it turns out that it had first been raised by a Waynesboro resident, Sherry Helsel, to members of Waynesboro City Council in 2022.

This is the same Sherry Helsel who filed a criminal complaint in October alleging that two members of the Board of Supervisors, Jeffrey Slaven, who was elected chairman of the BOS earlier this month, and Gerald Garber, had tried to get her fired from her job as an animal care inspector with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Augusta County Commonwealth’s Attorney Tim Martin requested the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate the allegations in November.

It should not surprise you to learn that no one in officialdom will even confirm that a special prosecutor has since been engaged in the case.

This is what happens in Augusta County; things get swept under the rug.

Before the 6-1 vote that approved the amendments, there was a public hearing – and wouldn’t you know it, Helsel was on hand to speak out on the ordinance, and what the updates to it continue to fail to address, issues raised that, unfortunately, the BOS, in its rush to declare victory and move on, simply ignored.

The first issue: that the new ordinance legalizes enforcing offenses involving running at large and not having a dog license as a civil penalty.

“I’ll say that I’ve stood right here and said that if the county does its homework and research and determines that running at large and no license can lawfully be enforced by civil penalty, then great, I’ll be the first to accept that result,” Helsel said.

Next issue: the rights of livestock owners for reimbursement of animals killed or injured by dogs.

“It’s really disheartening to me that that’s still in there,” Helsel said. “When there’s farmers sitting on this board, Augusta County prides itself on being pro-agriculture, and then there’s still this Section 532 that unlawfully imposes additional requirements on livestock owners, when state law clearly says that you can make an ordinance to waive some of the burdens for them.

“What 532 does is add two additional barriers between the farmer and county compensation, and one of those isn’t even mentioned anywhere in state law,” Helsel said. “So, I don’t know if this ordinance is intended to subvert the legal mandate on the county to reimburse those livestock owners, but again, it’s, you know, the Dillon Rule, just like farmers mentioned during the solar ordinance hearing, the county shouldn’t be taking liberties to lighten their own load, if it’s infringing on the legal, you know, rights of citizens.”

Third issue: a section in the ordinance deeming that the ownership of a dog that has run at large is a violation.

“It raises the question that my ownership of my dog couldn’t really be a violation of anything. It’s, are you prohibiting me from owning that dog now that it has been found running at large? You know, it’s just it seems like one word. But what exactly is the violation? That I’m the owner? And therefore, does that stop after one incident, or, you know, it just says that I’m deemed to have violated because I own the dog,” Helsel said.

“I have to have contributed in some way to my dog running at large, by negligence, typically, because that’s normally how it is, and I am a huge advocate of people keeping control of their dogs, but I have to do or not do something in order to be guilty of violating something,” Helsel said. “That’s what the law says. That’s what common sense says. If my house is on fire, and my dog runs out at large, just like the rest of the family to flee the fire, well, under this language, I’ve just violated an ordinance just by owning that dog. If I’m in Cancun, and my dog escapes the boarding facility, I violated the ordinance.”

But the pretense has been made that the county spent months reviewing the ordinance, and it’s time to move on.

Slaven read from what he said was a memo sent to the county by someone from the state attorney general’s office that we’re told said County Attorney James Benkahla’s interpretation of the state code is “reasonable.”

“So, all those bases have been covered by legal minds, even outside this county, and have consensus with our attorney,” Slaven said.

That’ll have to be good enough for you.

Seaton pointed out the obvious, before being cut off by Slaven.

“The problem is, we’re passing an ordinance that’s in error. And this has been brought up over and over, and it’s just been ignored,” Seaton said. “This is an ordinance that is in error, because we have d here that is not in the Virginia code. And I just don’t understand why it’s not being corrected.”

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the founder and editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination, a memoir published in 2019, and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to his YouTube page, or subscribe to his Street Knowledge podcast. Email Chris at [email protected].