Potentially dangerous dogs and what to do about them is once again a big concern for the Bingen City Council.
At the Dec. 5 council meeting, a Bingen resident, Sven Bergstrom, came to make an impassioned plea to the city to take action about what he characterized as an increasingly serious problem with aggressive dogs.
"There are pit bulls running loose. They've charged me twice and my wife once," Bergstrom told the council members. "I don't want to set animal traps in my front yard, and I don't want to carry a gun. But I have to do something to protect my family. When I am charged or my wife is charged by snarling pit bulls, I have a big problem with that."
Bergstrom, who resides on E. Humboldt, said he has called the police, but the results have not been satisfactory.
"By the time the police get there, the dogs are not there," he explained. "Nothing has been done yet."
According to Bergstrom, the dogs he's seen are dangerous and getting more so.
"I've seen dogs snarling and snapping at my neighbor's little boy," Bergstrom said. "These are dangerous animals, a hazard to our community, and I'd like options. We have to act quickly. They're getting worse, not better. We shouldn't have to wait until something happens."
Bingen's city attorney, Anthony Connors, conceded that Bingen's dangerous dog ordinance was ineffectual. He explained the law categorizes loose dogs as a civil infraction, not a criminal one, and the maximum fine for not keeping dogs restrained was just $105.
"It's not much of a hammer," Connors said. "
Bingen-White Salmon Police Chief Bruce Brending said citations have been issued to dog owners, including the owner of the pit bulls Bergstrom was complaining about.
"But with the current ordinances, we can issue tickets until we're blue, but we're not able to do more than that," Brending said. "We'll continue to do what we can. We'd like to go in and seize the dogs, but legally we can't do that."
Mayor Brian Prigel pointed out that dogs have been a long-standing problem within the city of Bingen over the years, and the issue continues to come up.
"Dogs have been a problem forever, and there are always funding issues. But that's no excuse," Prigel said.
Prigel pointed out that the city of Hood River is building an animal impound facility.
"If they would be able to help us, we could contract with them for animal control services," Prigel said.
Robert Vanderkloot, who lives on E. Franklin, said he has a young son and is deeply concerned about having pit bulls in the neighborhood.
"They're definitely aggressive dogs," Vanderkloot said. "If you stand at the fence, they'll let you know what they'll do if you try to come in. I have a toddler, and it's an accident waiting to happen."
Council members asked Connors to come up with a way to make the city's dog ordinances more effective.
"This issue keeps coming back and coming back," Connors said. "Dogs running at large is categorized as a `public nuisance,' so if you bring an action against an owner it's treated like a traffic ticket. A lot of people sort of ignore that stuff."
Connors recommended that the City Council consider changing the ordinance to make it a crime instead of a civil infraction to have dogs running at large.
"At least that gives us a way to get someone's attention," Connors said. "That's what we need to do, and that's my request to the council. Make it a misdemeanor and deal with it that way."
Connors added that the council should not take a lot of time to decide on changes to the ordinance.
"There's reason to be swifter and more urgent than usual," Connors said. "We need another tool right now."
Council member Betty Barnes urged her fellow council members to move fast to address the issue.
"I think we should quickly amend the ordinance at the next meeting," Barnes said.
Mayor Prigel agreed.
"Certainly, making this change gives us more latitude," Prigel said. "Hopefully, we can do something to alleviate this situation. The dog issue is never easy, and we'll never fully settle it."
Brending noted, however, that even with the changes, problems would remain.
"It's not a real simple fix," Brending said. "The other thing is, it doesn't get rid of the dog. We can arrest the owner, but the dog is still there -- the problem is still there. There are some problems with criminalizing this, but we like having the tool."
Connors pointed out that if the city did not take action soon, some citizens might be inclined to take matters into their own hands.
"People have the right to protect themselves under state law," Connors explained. "People are entitled to use force appropriate to the situation. I'm not suggesting people start shooting dogs, but we're getting to that point, obviously."
Connors said he would have language for a proposed new dog ordinance prepared in time for the City Council's next meeting. That meeting is set for Dec. 19, starting at 7 p.m.