Allowing mutts in municipal buildings has become a much-debated issue in Hingham after several town officials suggested banning man’s best friend from the premises.
The idea of barring dogs from Town Hall has brought out people on both sides of the issue, prompting discussion on whether any kinds of animals should be allowed into meetings, and whether dog-training programs should continue in the building.
“Dogs are defensive animals. We would be liable for that. That’s why I was teeing up the discussion,” said selectmen chairman Bruce Rabuffo, who initiated the conversation on the issue at a selectmen’s meeting last week.
The conversation points out the scarcity of formal regulations governing animals in town halls around the region. And to some people in Hingham, even bringing up the topic is unreasonable.
“To ban dogs from Town Hall seems ridiculous,” said Bob Keyes, a Recreation Commission member. “You just ask [people] not to bring dogs to meetings, [say] we prefer if you don’t, some people don’t like them, and drop it. But to ban all dogs from Town Hall is going overboard.”
Selectmen agreed to postpone a vote on the topic until they gathered more information about dog-training programs. The proposal is expected to cover all animals, with the understanding that service dogs and possibly Recreation Department training programs be allowed. A vote is expected within the next few weeks.
The debate began this month when Hingham resident John Hersey meandered into the building with his adopted mutt to a Planning Board meeting.
“I’m sitting with my dog on a leash lying right next to me all two hours. And this woman, she’s on the board, Judy Sneath, she’s looking at my dog for two hours,” Hersey said.
Hersey said he usually brings his furry friend to Town Hall once a week to provide the animal with some exercise.
According to Sneath, the dog was allowed to wander around the room after the meeting.
“My family is very nervous around dogs, so I’m sensitive to that and asked the person who brought the pet to keep control of it. He did; he was willing,” Sneath said. “But it made me think that maybe we needed a plan . . . you just don’t know every person and every pet that walks into the door.”
Sneath approached other officials to see if the town had a policy on pooch presence, and was surprised to find it didn’t.
“I’d like to know more information about what’s common practice, but to me Town Hall is a place where everyone should be welcome and everyone should feel comfortable, and I’d hate for someone who came to Town Hall to be put off or have to leave or feel uncomfortable because someone brought a pet,” Sneath said.
A spot check of communities south of Boston found a patchwork of practices.
Marshfield’s animal control officer, Deni Goldman, said it isn’t unusual for towns to restrict dogs from school properties or playgrounds.
“I’d imagine there are a ton of municipalities that don’t allow dogs in public buildings unless they are service dogs,” Goldman said. “In some areas, there is no law one way or another.”
One of those towns is Duxbury, where Town Clerk Nancy M. Oates said people sometimes bring small dogs into Town Hall for registration, but they’re usually on leashes and under control at all times.
“We certainly don’t make a fuss,” Oates said. “Some people just don’t like dogs and like to make rules against them.”
At Marshfield Town Hall, dogs come in regularly.
“They bring dogs in all the time to register them, in case we want to meet them,” said Narice Casper, Marshfield’s assistant town clerk. “People think of dogs as part of their family.”
Norwell Town Clerk Patricia M. Anderson said Norwell Town Hall does not have any statement in their bylaws that prohibits dogs from entering the building and has not taken any action to ban service dogs from aiding their owners on the premises.
In Cohasset, Rockland, and Weymouth, the phenomenon is less common, but the town clerks in those towns said they occasionally see residents carrying in small dogs.
In Hingham, dogs have always been allowed into Town Hall, and people often bring them.
According to Selectwoman Irma Lauter, Hingham’s animal control officer brings her adopted dog into the building all the time. Other residents have their four-legged companions accompany them on town business with no complaint, some just to introduce their pets to town employees.
“The issue is a real one about what do you do with animals at Town Hall, but I don’t think we should rush to judgment,” Lauter said.
Keyes also said a weekly dog-training class would be severely disrupted by a change in policy.
The dog training program “has been in there a long time and probably trained a quarter of the dogs in Hingham,” Keyes said. “Seventeen years, usually every class has eight to 10 dogs. [The trainer has] trained a lot of dogs, and there has never been any problem.”
Some previous town employees also brought their dogs to work every day without complaint, Keyes said.
Yet past practice should not set the bar for what professional conduct in a municipal building should be, said Selectman Paul Healey.
“To me, you’re in Town Hall trying to get the business of the people done,” Healey said. “I don’t know how a dog adds to that, to be honest with you. If you go into any government building, you don’t see dogs running around.”
Healey likened it to the inappropriateness of bringing a dog to court. During Healey’s trips to Africa, he saw dogs allowed to run in and out of buildings, creating a “chaotic climate and atmosphere.”
“This is different. There is decorum, rules people follow, you speak when you’re recognized, you wait to talk. This, to me, is common sense; you leave your animal at home.”