TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In an effort to prevent similar efforts elsewhere, greyhound owners and breeders are suing Seminole County over an ordinance requiring trainers to report racing dog injuries.
The legal battle comes after the Florida Legislature did not adopt statewide regulations to require the injury reports, an effort pushed by Massachusetts-based Grey2K USA Worldwide and other animal-rights advocates. Proponents of idea have tried unsuccessfully for years to get legislators to pass injury-reporting requirements.
The Seminole County effort was spearheaded by the Committee to Protect Greyhounds, which presented local officials with more than 14,000 petitions in support of an ordinance to force greyhound trainers at the Sanford Orlando Kennel Club to report dog injuries.
The ordinance, approved by the County Commission in August, also requires trainers to provide information about what happens to dogs after they stop racing at the track and mandates that the dogs be licensed by the county. County officials must also inspect the dogs' kennels.
The lawsuit alleges, among other things, that the Seminole ordinance violates a statewide prohibition on local governments regulating the pari-mutuel industry. The ordinance took effect March 1.
“Specifically, the ordinance contradicts the mandate” of Florida law “that the state create rules regulating greyhound racing that are uniform in application and effect throughout Florida,” wrote attorney Jeff Kottkamp, a former lieutenant governor who represents greyhound owners Scott Bennett and Jimmy Goodman, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed Tuesday. Bennett and Goodman are members of the Central Florida Greyhound Association.
The ordinance requires the Sanford track to obtain a commercial kennel license from the county and “to comply with county regulations that either conflict with state regulations, or are not contained in state regulations,” while state law “grants the Division of Pari-mutuel Wagering the exclusive authority to regulate the totality of the pari-mutuel industry in Florida,” Kottkamp wrote.
But Grey2K Executive Director Carey Theil said state law “does not include a local preemption for greyhound racing at all.”
“We researched this very thoroughly. We talked to not one but two of the top legal experts in the state, and we're very confident that this is not preempted at the local level,” he said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
Theil and his organization have pushed the Legislature to pass a law authorizing “decoupling,” a process that allows tracks to do away with live racing while keeping more lucrative gambling activities, such as slots, card rooms or simulcast races.
The Senate included a decoupling provision in a sweeping gambling proposal this year, but the House and Senate leaders ultimately failed to reach agreement on a bill.
While the Seminole County proposal did not go before voters because the county commission approved it, the political committee behind the ordinance is exploring similar efforts in other counties that allow citizen-backed referendums, Theil said.
The Seminole ordinance will require county officials to issue licenses to about 2,500 dogs, maintain injury reports and make them available to the public, and inspect the kennels.
“All of this is a larger plan to make it look like this is a very dangerous industry,” Kottkamp told The News Service of Florida on Wednesday.
He argued that the state alone is --- and should be --- the regulatory entity responsible for overseeing dog racing. Creating a patchwork of regulations that vary throughout the state “would be a disaster for the pari-mutuel industry,” Kottkamp said.
“We don't need to be dealing with, as an industry, not just statewide regulations but then different, possibly more onerous, regulations in each of the counties,” he said. “Are we going to have local ordinances regulating horse tracks and regulating slots and regulating card rooms? That's counter to the intent of the Legislature, and somebody had to fight this fight so we decided we would.”
But proponents of injury reporting point to widespread injuries sustained by racing dogs, as well as other abuses, as reasons for the reporting requirements.
“It comes as no surprise that the greyhound industry is yet again trying to hide injury data from the public. Industry lobbyists will apparently do anything to prevent the public from knowing how many dogs are suffering broken legs and other serious injuries. This is the industry's dirty little secret,” Carla Wilson, vice-chairwoman of the Committee to Protect Greyhounds, which backed the Seminole ordinance, said in a statement. “The legal claims made in this lawsuit are flawed, and will be rejected."