It was around 5:45pm on a dusky Thursday afternoon -- just a week or so before Parks and Recreation Dept. officers stopped Old West Austin neighborhood resident Asher Garber for walking his dogs Abby and Lopez without a leash in West Austin Park, and arrested him for not providing identification. Garber and several other dog owners were standing near the park bleachers, watching their dogs wrestle with and chase each other, when suddenly Sarah Uribe noticed a PARD police car pull up close to the entrance. "He's here!" she shouted, quickly leashing up her two bichon frises before scooting toward home. Many followed suit, but others, confident their dogs had not been seen off-leash, lingered.
"Everybody without leashes, I'll cut you all a break today," announced patrol officer Hector Rangel as he approached the middle of the three-acre park. "Tomorrow, I'll give you a ticket." Although many members of the Old West Austin Neighborhood Canine Social Club -- formed last year to promote the safe use of the park and to develop a park code of conduct -- consider Rangel to be the "nice" cop, one dog walker muttered "fascist" loudly enough for Rangel and this reporter to hear.
Rangel says he wishes the Canine Social Club would just work with PARD police. He regrets that some park patrons call him "gestapo" and other names, and denies that PARD is targeting the club and their pooches. "It's part of our patrol," he explains earnestly, referring to the dog check. "It's been an ongoing thing here. I saw at least nine dogs off the leash." A sign prominently placed near the park's southern entrance reads, "All pets on leash."
If Rangel drives around with night vision glasses in his patrol car, and occasionally trains them on the park, it's because the glasses help him assist the Austin Police Dept. in catching bad guys, he says -- "not the people here." He hands them over to offer a look. "I'm the only one that has them."
Rangel's night vision goggles might be useful for catching vagrants, but several Canine Club members say that while taking their dogs for a nighttime stroll near the park, they've spotted Rangel and have felt harassed. Others say they have personally witnessed PARD police hiding behind trees, or have been followed home. Things came to a head on the evening of Feb. 13, when PARD police arrested Garber and hauled him off to jail for refusing to identify himself. Garber insists that both his dogs were on their leashes, and that he committed no crime. According to witnesses, an officer kicked Abby, Garber's half-blind, 10-year-old Corgi mix, and threatened to take her and Lopez to animal control.
Last year, PARD police ticketed Garber for Abby being off-leash. "Now I have a leash with me at all times," he said. A municipal court judge denied his request for a jury trial, but only fined him $1 on a $215 ticket. A businessman who moved to Austin in April of 1999, Garber says the dog park heavily influenced his decision to move to the neighborhood. He met his partner at the park, and their business was conceived there. So was Lopez. With two dogs, Garber's latest citation might cost him $430. "You can see why I didn't want to give [my name]," he said.
According to PARD spokesman Victor Ovalle, since Jan. 1, 2001 PARD officers have issued eight tickets at West Austin Park of 40 tickets citywide. PARD Police will continue enforcing the ordinances, and concerning West Austin Park, no policy changes have been determined yet. 'I'm sure [PARD officials] are going to meet to discuss this,' Ovalle said.
Garber's arrest sparked such controversy at City Hall that last Friday, Council Member Beverly Griffith held a meeting in her office with Council Member Daryl Slusher, Hector Uribe (former state Sen. and Sarah's husband), and two other neighborhood reps in order to mitigate the tension. Griffith's office invited PARD Director Jesus Olivares and PARD Police Chief Ruben Lopez, but both were instructed by city staff not to attend due to a statement printed in the Austin American-Statesman threatening a lawsuit. The bigger issue, Uribe says, is governance. "City Council wanted it to be a leash-free park," Uribe said, "but Olivares said it's not ... One has to wonder about a city staff that frustrates the will of the City Council, especially for a year and a half."
In June 2000, the City Council approved a neighborhood plan for Old West Austin that included a request for a six-month trial period to determine whether the park should remain leash-free. West Austin residents say they've used the flat, southern area of the park as an off-leash area for their dogs for about 20 years. But last year, PARD reserved the space for the West Austin Youth Association (WAYA) for tee-ball games -- without telling residents. Then, the ticketing began. Club members say Olivares has rejected their requests to divide the park between them and WAYA, or to give them use of the park during early morning or after-work hours, their usual time slots. "He doesn't even want to give us two hours a day," said Garber.
WAYA Executive Director Greg Rives stresses that his organization and the neighborhood have developed a good relationship, and that on the dog issue the club's problem is with PARD, not with WAYA. "Park space is obviously hard to come across, and PARD was kind enough to let us use that park," Rives said. "I know the West Austin neighbors have been using that park for a long time, but it is PARD's property. I think what they want to do is have kids in the park. I don't think they wanted it to be a dog park."
WAYA would like to use the space for practices, he said, and dogs running loose while the organization's 5- to 7-year-olds tried to play posed a concern. Another worry was dog droppings -- "for obvious reasons." But club members say they face much "peer pressure" to keep the park clean, and that the immediate neighborhood around the park has more dogs than children. "I don't see any kids around, getting bitten," Garber said. "Do you?"
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