AUGUSTA— In a small town issues are seldom black and white. The truth is somewhere hidden in the gray in the middle. It’s a battle the city of Augusta and one couple, Sue and Ray Jones currently find themselves in.
The Jones’, who own Fairchild Interiors at 419 State St., in downtown Augusta say the city is persecuting them because of their desire to feed and water feral cats behind their business. The city of Augusta says that the Jones’ violated pet ownership ordinances and have been illegally harboring and amassing cats for years causing a public health hazard.
While the truth lies somewhere in the middle, what can’t be disputed was the overwhelming smell of cat feces that radiated from the 400 block of State St., while the cat colony resided there. Here’s what both sides say led to Tuesday’s court findings.
Disclaimer: At the time of publication, multiple attempts to reach Ray or Sue Jones were not returned.
Ordinances for animal control and regulations show on the online document they were last adjusted in 1991. However, they have been around for decades, long before Sue Jones was elected to the city council, and long before Matt Childers was elected as mayor.
The ordinances list the definition of harboring as follows: “any person who shall allow any animals to habitually remain, lodge, or to be fed within his or her home, store, yard, enclosure or place of business or any other premises where he or she resides or controls.” Animals at large are defined as follows: “An animal shall be deemed to be at-large if off the premises of its owner and not under the immediate responsive control of a responsible person.”
Those definitions are the root of the charges brought against the Jones’.
The section in the ordinance titled “nuisance; animal activities prohibited,” outlines that animals that cause any condition which threatens or endangers the health or well being of persons or other animals is prohibited. City code also states that any dog or cat over six months of age harbored or housed within city limits must be registered, immunized and spayed or neutered. The last section of the ordinance states that residents in Augusta cannot maintain no more than three dogs and three cats or a combination of more than three dogs and cats in a single household.
When Ray and Sue Jones were found guilty by a city judge Tuesday, they were charged with four counts each of violating the nuisance animal ordinance for animals that causes conditions that threatens or endangers public health, and four counts of animals running at large. These charges were based on evidentiary violations of animal ordinances for the reasons outlined above.
The eight total charges were reduced by the city judge from 21 original charges brought by the city. At their court appearance on Tuesday, each were found guilty of four counts and ordered to pay a fine of $150 per violation. Breaking another, any other, ordinance during a probationary period could result in jail time.
Sue Jones is an avid feline lover. She and her sister moved their business, Fairchild interiors and Design, to downtown Augusta in 2011. Since then they moved from a building off Fifth St., to the 400 block of State St. It’s there the cat problems started amassing. Allegedly in addition to feeding cats already downtown in the alley behind the business, Jones would drive around town, capture feral cats, and relocate them downtown.
In March of 2015, Jones addressed the city council in an attempt to convince the city to back a trap/neuter/return or TNR policy for feral cats. She was able to get Friends of Felines Kansas on board with the proposal. Her idea was to reduce the number of feral cats in town by fixing them and vaccinating them. They would then be released to roam for the rest of their days. Augusta Animal Clinic veterinarian Mike Cocke agreed to provide spaying/neutering services and rabies vaccinations for two cats a week free of charge.
Quoted below is the section of the minutes from the March 16, 2015 meeting where the program was discussed. The policy was never brought back for re-condisderation by Jones.
“Jones agreed with Reavis that this cannot be done by the City. She stated that most communities that have had this be an effective program have partnered with or turned it over to a volunteer group that has formed a 501c3 organization. She stated that Carthage, Missouri has a 501c3 organization called Spare a Cat Rescue and they have partnered with City and applied for grant money to get their program going. Jones stated she is not proposing that the City trap them, take them to Wichita, and pick them up and bring them back. She stated it is about having the opportunity to develop a program and allowing people like her to partner with or form a volunteer group to start developing the program in Augusta.
“Malone called the question. Motion to leave the animal control policies as is until there is a proposal from a sponsoring agency to carry out a TNR program carried with Jones voting in opposition. Shaw asked if two or three weeks from now there is a proposal from an organization on his desk, how is staff to proceed with presenting it to the Council. Childers stated that based on the vote, if there is a 501c3 organization that comes to the table providing funding and a mechanism to implement a TNR program that would be amenable to Council, staff should present that to the Council to take under advisement at that point. The Council agreed.”
City council members at the time expressed concern of where liability would fall if any of the TNR’d cats bit residents. They and legal council were unsure if the procedures could fall legally under the definition of harboring. The issue was tabled and a policy never decided upon.
Also in the spring of 2015, Jone’s one and only term as city council member for Ward 3 ended. It was around that time she received her first ticket for violating animal ordinances. Jones’ attorney stated that she was cited for putting boxes outside her business to shelter feral cats. Chief Tyler Brewer said that in 2015 Ray Jones was charged with the destruction of city property because of the mess the cats they had been caring for behind the business had caused downtown. Brewer said several complaints were received by both businesses nearby and residents who live in apartments above those businesses. Complaints included but weren’t limited to smell, damage to property, and noise.
“After the charges were brought the problem went away,” Brewer said. “However, overtime it developed again. It’s interesting because after with these new counts, the feral cat problem is again basically non-existent downtown.”
Complaints of cats in the months following the charges dropped off.
Since then animal control has been working to pick up the cats. As part of the agreement between Jones and the city to resolve the ordinance violations, Jones said she and her husband would work to trap the cats, take them to the local animal clinic, have them spayed or neutered and then take them to a rescue in Harvey County that provides sanctuary for feral cats.
“I had absolutely no problem with that,” Brewer said. “It was a better option than euthanizing them in my personal opinion. She’d fix them and then take them away. The cats would live our their lives, and there would be less cats in town.”
But after awhile the cat problem started piling up again according to Brewer.
“We received complaints she’d take the cats to be fixed and then return them to the city, which was not the agreement,” Brewer said.
After complaints once again began pouring into the Augusta Department of Public Safety about the cats in late 2016, Brewer said his department investigated.
“I think that Sue Jones is a good hearted person,” Brewer said. “I think she has ideas in regards to this that just happen to be opposite to what the city leaders and management has decided what the policy is. It’s a difficult thing for her because she’s a feline lover. But, I have to look out for the health and the well being of the entire city and have to follow the guidelines set by the policy makers.”
Evidence included photos and complaints. More than one complainant stated seeing seven to 11 cats in front of the business.
“With the amount of cats in the area spotted during our followup, it became apparent that we had indeed developed another problem,” Brewer said. “From a professional and personal standpoint I think they do offer a health hazard. Businesses have rights too and the cats were being nuisances downtown. We had many many complaints.”
It was during the second investigation that a public safety officer was bitten by one of the cats on his finger and developed an infection.
“He ended up in the hospital in Wichita and then was taken to Kansas City for an operation because the infection had gotten so bad,” Brewer said. “He was in real danger of losing his finger. With so many festivals and activities downtown we have to evaluate the risk to public safety, especially if a kid was bitten.”
Since charges were brought a second time the feeding and watering has stopped causing many of the cats to disperse. Some have also been caught by animal control. A GoFundMe page titled Stop Augusta Killing of Cats was started in November 2016 by Mike Huddleston in support of Jones and their legal battle. It raised $110 of its $5,000 since that time. The “story” states that citizens have tried to implement a more humane solution but the police chief demands strict adherence to catch and kill.
“This fund is to help pay legal fees for those few individuals trying to save cats from the cruelty of humans,” the website reads.
Now the Jones’ are working to wrap up their legal battle after being found guilty of eight counts. They have amassed support from local animal rights groups and residents, many of whom are voicing their displeasure at the city policy on social media. Childers said the city has received calls both in support of and against Jones’ conviction.
With both sides at polar opposites perhaps there can be some common ground found in the middle? Childers said that if residents want to put together a proposal for TNR the council would gladly hear it out. However, the project is not on the city council’s agenda due to potential costs. This year’s tax-lid bill has set a cap for municipality budgets. It’s a cap the city is already pushing against and had to tightly budget for next year.
“At this time it’s not something we’d be able to fund,” Childers said. “I also don’t think the city council would support a program that would re-release the cats back into the city. Business owners downtown say they are tired of the mess created from the animals.”
One thing that can be absolutely certain for both sides, is that both are passionate in their beliefs.