Next Monday, February 24, Denver City Council will face its most heavily scrutinized vote in years, when members will determine whether to override Mayor Michael Hancock's veto of a measure that would effectively legalize pit bulls in the Mile High City for the first time since a prohibition on three pit-related breeds was instituted in 1989. And among those weighing in on the issue is Colorado Governor Jared Polis, who last night used his personal Twitter account to troll Hancock, usually a political ally.
In the tweet, the photo above was accompanied by this text: "Freda, a friend’s new pit bull rescue pup, joined us at the governors mansion in Denver tonight." Polis added a "shhhh" and a hushing emoji.
Rather than sending animal control to Polis's residence to hand him a citation and seize the puppy (thousands of pit bulls have been euthanized since the ban began), Hancock responded with a single word, "Wow!!," which appears to have been his attempt to seem good-humored despite this shot across his bow-wow. But Polis wasn't done. He replied to Hancock with a graphic of Scooby-Doo, the famed cartoon Great Dane, delivering a trademark expression of concern: "Ruh Roh."
That's putting it mildly.
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Hancock encapsulated his rationale for the first veto of his mayoral career in a letter to council released at 5 p.m. on Friday, February 14, which, as all politicians (and journalists) know, is a time when even most news junkies have tuned out for the weekend. "At the end of the day, I must ask whether passage of this ordinance would make our homes and neighborhoods safer or pose an increased risk to public safety?" he wrote." I have concluded that it would pose an increased risk. I encourage members of City Council to reconsider their approach to this ordinance, which has been in the municipal code for over three decades. If we were to make this change now, and harm comes to someone as a result, then we have done a disservice to the people of this great city."
One interpretation of his reasoning: Hancock doesn't want the public blaming him if he signs the bill, sponsored by another longtime political pals, Councilmember Chris Herndon, and then someone is seriously hurt or killed by a pit bull. And this isn't an irrational fear, as demonstrated by a petition launched last week by Paul Vranas entitled "Denver City Council — Keep Pit Bulls Out of Denver." Here's an excerpt from its introduction, complete with Vranas's original verbiage and links:
Dear City Council,
On Monday evening 2/10/20, at the exact time that many of you initially voted to repeal the ban on pit bulls, a family in Los Angeles was being notified that their 5 year old son was murdered by a pit bull:
"He was a loving dog,” a relative said. “He was not a vicious dog, but how it snapped, we don’t understand.”
On Tuesday evening 2/11/20 a 25 yr old man lost his life to a pit bull attack in a Suburb of Chicago.
"I have been around the dog a few times and it never gave the indication it was vicious. We trusted it around our small kids," Samantha Costilla said. "My cousins and I, we all have kids under five and the dog would play and the kids would play around him. We never thought it was a vicious animal that we had to protect our family from."
We believe that a similar deadly attack will happen in Denver as a direct result of the passage of this law.
The Vranas entreaty got huge play from local TV stations, which have long realized that stories portraying pit bulls as vicious, out-of-control rage machines are ratings gold, as well as plenty of national outlets. Yet as of early February 17, it's only collected 561 signatures. By comparison, a pro-pit bull petition aimed at Denver's council has been signed 132 times despite receiving approximately zero publicity.
In his letter, Hancock also suggested that Herndon's proposal would be hampered by the fact that "less than 20 percent of all pets in Denver are currently licensed." Herndon, for his part, thinks this scenario is actually an argument for backing his notion, since the system he envisions would encourage pit bull owners to come out of the shadows. "We know these breeds are in our community — and because they're banned, there's a higher possibility that the owner won't seek out professional guidance or even proper pet care," he told us last month. "And right now, we don't know where these dogs are. If the ordinance passes, we will, and that will make our community safer."
Meanwhile, the pressure is ratcheting up on councilmembers, who passed the ordinance on February 10 by a 7-4 margin, with two absences — Candi CdeBaca, who'd voted in favor of it at an earlier stage, and Stacie Gilmore, who turned thumbs-down. The "yes" side of the equation was represented by Kendra Black, Amanda Sandoval, Jamie Torres, Jolon Clark, Robin Kneich and Chris Hinds, while Debbie Ortega, Kevin Flynn, Paul Kashmann and Amanda Sawyer opposed.
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Nine votes are needed to override the veto, and if CdeBaca and Gilmore stand pat along with all the other supporters, Ortega, Flynn, Kashmann or Sawyer would have to flip. Replace Denver BSL (the letters stand for "breed-specific legislation"), an advocacy group that was instrumental to the initial passage, is aiming much of its energy at Sawyer, as group co-founder Shira Hereld told us last week.
"Councilwoman Sawyer said it was clear that breed-specific legislation doesn't work," Hereld allows. "Her concern was that Denver Animal Protection didn't have the capacity to properly enforce the ordinance. But Denver Animal Protection has said they do believe they can enforce it. So we're encouraging her and all the other councilmembers to talk to Denver Animal Protection so they can take that concern off their plates."
Either way, their decision will be watched carefully — including by the governor of Colorado.
This post has been updated to include information about the veto override vote now scheduled to take place during the February 24 Denver City Council meeting.