Thanks to Drunken Boaters, City Closes Dog Beach Without Public Input

For years now, Exchange Club Park in Pompano Beach has been a secluded, almost secret oasis for dogs and their owners. Here was the only beach in Broward and Palm Beach counties where dogs were allowed at any time. The clear and calm waters of the Intracoastal made it an ideal spot for New Times to select it as Best Dog Park in this week's Best Of Broward/Palm Beach edition.

But just as that award hit the stands last week, city officials met behind closed doors and decided to shut down the dog park. A threatening letter from an attorney and a written

complaint from a neighbor were apparently all it took for city officials to decide, without public input, that dogs would no longer be allowed.

It's an example of just how government shouldn't be run. Without any word from the public, nameless bureaucrats decided to change the rules and stop tens of thousands of people from bringing their dogs to a park they've been using for years.

Pompano Beach spokeswoman Sandra King said the decision was made by parks department officials from Pompano and Lighthouse Point. The two cities share the tiny park on NE 24th Street. It was never an official dog park, but the no-leash policy beyond a gate leading to the beach meant dog owners far outnumbered others.

Those off-leash dogs have caused continued problems at the park, King says, largely by drunken boaters who run speedboats ashore on the sandy beach. King says there have been fights, including a stabbing, and deputies are regularly called to break up problems between the dogs. Some boaters have even brought fighting dogs to train on unsuspecting house pets, she says.

Those stories don't agree with accounts from several regulars at the park, who describe it as a quiet spot where the dogs rarely number a dozen or more. 

But earlier this month, the city received two letters complaining about the park, including one from attorney Jennifer Colson of Pompano. Colson, who didn't return a phone call to her office, sent a carefully worded letter June 7 that indicated the land owners and cities "are now put on notice" about the "extreme likelihood" of dog bites or criminal activity at the park.

The land is owned by the Florida Inland Navigation District, so King says the city didn't have the option of banning boats. Instead, the bureaucrats figured the easiest way to fix the problem was to post signs banning dogs from the park. Signs went up Friday, and the city has begun issuing warnings to owners of off-leash dogs, which will be followed soon by fines.

Of course, the city could've tried other methods that have been successful at other dog parks. Those who bring off-leash dogs could've been required to pay a fee that went toward a security presence at the park. Boaters could've been forbidden from bringing their troubled dogs off boats. But that wouldn't have been as easy as just posting some signs and banning people with dogs from the park.

And the cities could've asked the public for input. They could have held a public hearing or brought the issue up at a meeting of either city's commission. But doing so would've motivated the thousands of people who use the park to come out and voice their opposition to the change. Then the bureaucrats wouldn't have been able to make their quick decision in response to two complaints.

King defends the ban and the lack of public input on it. "The do have a value on public opinion," she said of the unnamed officials who made the decision. "But this is an administrative-type decision. This is the type of decision that is made every day without public input." She likened it to decisions to change park hours, which would never go before a vote.

But if changing park hours affects tens of thousands of people no longer able to enjoy a park the way they have for years, it should go before the public. Because bad decisions like this one are exactly why government doesn't work better in the dark.

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Eric Barton
Contact: Eric Barton