In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth leaders, Tim Morton, assistant director of Code Compliance, explains the Safe Outdoor Dogs Bill and how it will affect the city’s animal care and control procedures.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.
Cecilia Lenzen: What is your role in Fort Worth Animal Care and Control? What exactly does the assistant director of Code Compliance do?
Tim Morton: Well, I am the assistant director of Code Compliance for Animal Welfare. Code Compliance is a department that is made up of several area commands, including solid waste, consumer health, environmental code enforcement, and animal care and control. And so I am the assistant director focusing primarily on animal care and control, and that involves both our animal care campuses as well as our field officers, our animal control officers out in the field.
Lenzen: How long have you been in this role?
Morton: About seven years, just a little over seven years.
Lenzen: The Safe Outdoor Dogs Bill just recently passed. How would you explain the new ordinance to someone who isn’t familiar with it?
Morton: It really is a tethering ordinance for the most part. It addresses the unincorporated areas of Tarrant County. It affects — it’s statewide — the ability of animals to not be left out in the elements, to be not cared for in a humane way. We think that it is a very important topic and something that we supported on the statewide level, although we had already addressed this from a city standpoint. So the city (and) our residents will not see a lot of changes based upon this bill because of our existing ordinance, which is even more restrictive than this good, new state law.
Lenzen: As you said, the Fort Worth Animal Care and Control already had its own ordinance. Can you tell me a little bit about what that ordinance looked like and how it’s stricter than the new bill that just passed?
Morton: The main difference is that (Fort Worth’s) ordinance says that you cannot tether an animal on a stationary object or a trolley system unless it, well, it’s really period. There are some exceptions, and those exceptions for the most part require that the owner or the person with control of the dog is right there with the dog at the time it’s tethered. So we don’t allow unattended tethering really at all. Whereas, the new state bill is really directed specifically at tethering an animal that’s otherwise unattended by its owner. So those would be the big differences. The city of Fort Worth doesn’t allow tethering, period, with few exceptions that require the owner to be there, and the state bill allows tethering as long as a multitude of requirements are met, whether or not the owner is present.
Lenzen: Fort Worth residents won’t really notice any change once this bill is implemented?
Morton: We don’t believe so. We’ve looked at it, our attorneys have looked at it, and we believe that because of the fact that the state bill, which we fully support, is really aimed at those animals that are left outside unattended on some kind of tether that they have some kind of level of protections built into a state law. Whereas, the city of Fort Worth, we’re saying that the animals really shouldn’t be tethered unless you’re right there with them and taking care of them and there’s a specific reason that the animal is attached to some other object.
Lenzen: Will the new bill change Fort Worth’s policies or procedures or anything in that regard?
Morton: We don’t anticipate that it will. It really is something that we supported. We felt that it was important to get this ordinance on the books several years ago, so we fully supported the work that the state legislature has done in making this happen. It took the third special session to get us there, but we’re certainly happy and we don’t anticipate any changes with the way that the city of Fort Worth is doing things with (one) potential exception. City of Fort Worth Animal Care and Control has jurisdiction over certainly the city of Fort Worth, but we also provide animal care services for the unincorporated county. In those areas, our officers may be called to address some tethering issues that are addressed by the state law that previously would not have been an issue for us to address.
Lenzen: What happens when the new bill is implemented? Will the city continue operating under its already existing slightly stricter ordinance, or will it loosen those restrictions a little to match the state bill?
Morton: That’s a good question. The new state law actually has very common language in it when you’re looking at health and safety-type statutes. As long as the local ordinance is equal to or more restrictive, which (Fort Worth’s) is, then the state law defers to the local. And we certainly don’t have any intention of reducing the protections that are provided for dogs in our community. In the city of Fort Worth, our more stricter ordinance will continue to be the law.
Lenzen: How does the city enforce this ordinance?
Morton: We are a city of 900,000 people covering some I think 450 plus square miles, so we have a finite number of animal control officers. So most of our enforcement in areas such as tethering and loose dogs and other issues, we rely on the eyes and ears of the community. So most of our responses are based upon reports that we get from the community that something’s going on and we think that it needs to be checked out and make sure that the animals are OK and that everyone is following the laws and the ordinances that they need to. Now occasionally, our officers are out in the field, and they will self-identify an issue, but the vast majority of our issues, because of just the size and population of the city of Fort Worth, come through our residents.
Lenzen: What happens to dog owners and their dogs when they violate this ordinance?
Morton: We always want what’s best for the animals. My department is Code Compliance, and compliance is where we really want to be. And so our effort is to make sure that folks are complying with providing the protections that the law demands for their animals. We generally start out with some kind of an educational component, especially when we’re out, for instance, in the county and this is a newly enacted ordinance that folks may not be aware of. In the city, everyone’s pretty aware of our ordinance that’s been in place for a number of years. So we’re a little more aimed probably at some enforcement action to make sure that everyone understands that these ordinances and this new law is there for a purpose, and it needs to be observed. Along with that, even if we do end up writing a citation for a violation — and violation of our ordinance or this new law is a class C misdemeanor similar to a traffic ticket — our goal is compliance. We have ways we can work with the court system to allow education programs to allow those tickets to be dismissed if that’s appropriate.
Lenzen: How can community members get involved and help this cause?
Morton: It’s really about being eyes and ears for the city. That’s how so many of the city departments learn of issues. It’s not just an animal control issue. The fact that the city has a finite number of staff that are out in the field at any one time, we rely on our residents to let us know what’s going on in their communities and their neighborhoods so we can get out there and investigate and see if there’s something going on that needs to be addressed. So it really is just helping us in being those eyes and ears and reporting it through one of the numerous ways that the city has to be able to report these types of incidents.
Lenzen: Gotcha. Well, thank you for taking the time to inform us about all of this. Is there anything else that you want our readers and listeners to know?
Morton: Not specifically about this, but following up on where we were, the city has an app that you can put on your phone, and it’s called the MyFW app. You can take a picture of something that is of concern to you, and through that app, it directly notifies the city and we can go and follow up on that. So it’s a very convenient way, and it also allows you to track the resolution of that complaint, so you know that the city actually did go out and investigate and address the issue.
Fort Worth Report fellow Cecilia Lenzen can be reached at email@example.com or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.