Dunn, Dogs and Libel: Listening to His Master’s Voice?
The Cecil County Board of Commissioners decided Tuesday to delay action on a proposed revision to the countyâ€™s animal control ordinance, which was drafted by a citizen â€śtask forceâ€ť working for over a year to revise county laws dealing with public health, safety and humane treatment of animals issues.
The Commissioners held a public hearing on the proposed ordinance revision earlier this month, at which horse advocates questioned whether language pertaining to mandatory excrement pick-ups would apply to horses, and sportsmen challenged kennel size and cruelty rules. In addition, residents of the Appleton Road area challenged county zoning rules â€“ not contained in the animal control law– that allow a commercial dog breeding kennel to locate â€śby rightâ€ť in certain zones, such as business areas, without notification to neighbors or requirements for a Special Exception.
The Commissioners had been scheduled to vote on the new ordinance at their next evening meeting but at their work session Tuesday morning commissioners decided to delay action.
New Cecil County Commissioner Michael Dunn (R-3rd) spoke out at length for the first time since his November election, leveling what could be legally considered libelous accusations against the Cecil County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Inc. The SPCA currently holds the contract with the county for animal control services.
[Disclosure: The editor of the Cecil Times is a former unpaid, volunteer board member of the SPCA but resigned from the board at the end of last year.]
The Cecil Times is not repeating Dunnâ€™s accusations, pursuant to a recent New Jersey court ruling holding that a news organization can be held liable for reporting libelous assertions even if they are uttered in a court or public meeting by a public official. Traditional legal views of the principle of â€śprivilege of reportingâ€ť hold that a news organization may report what is said in a public government venue without repercussions of libel law. However, more recent legal rulings still working their way through the courts hold that a news organization may not repeat a libelous assertion even if it is uttered in a public meeting or court filing.
In an interview with Cecil Times, Norman Wilson, the county attorney, said that Dunnâ€™s comments appear to be covered by legislative privilege, even though they were uttered at a work session of the county commissioners, not a formal evening meeting. Legislative privilege at the state and federal level allows an elected official to say whatever he or she wishes in a government proceeding on the floor of a House or Senate body, without regard to the consequences of libel law. However, a news organization repeating such comments might be held liable, according to recent court rulings.
Dunn is a former employee of Del. Michael Smigiel (R-36) and worked for the delegate at the time that Smigiel and his staff launched an attack on the SPCA in early 2009. Smigielâ€™s assertions were found to be untrue by a State Police investigation and a review by the Caroline County Stateâ€™s Attorneyâ€™s office.
Responding to Dunnâ€™s outburst at the Tuesday work session, Commissioner Robert Hodge (R-5) angrily responded, â€śI, for the record, strenuously object.â€ť He noted that â€śnone of that was provenâ€ť and declared, â€śthis is not the way to addressâ€ť the issues of animal control.
Hodge noted that the proposed ordinance did not mention the SPCA at all, and that the volunteer task force had labored long and hard to produce a consensus product. He said the ordinance would regulate animal issues regardless of which entity was selected as the provider of animal control services.
Hodge said that the remaining members of the task forceâ€”the former chairman and several other members have since resignedâ€”would meet next week to review comments raised by citizens and make recommendations to the commissioners for possible revisions.
Asked for comment, Jeanne Deeming, executive director of the Cecil County SPCA, said: â€śRather than making unfounded attacks on the SPCA, Mr. Dunn should focus on the important changes in county animal control law that a citizen task force worked on for over a year, along with valuable input from county officials and the former county Treasurer.â€ť
â€śIt is unfortunate that Mr. Dunn chose to parrot the false accusations of his former employer,â€ť she said. â€śInstead, the County Commissioners should move forward with positive steps to address public health and safety issues, as well as the humane treatment of animals, all of which are addressed in the new proposed ordinance.â€ť