LEESBURG -- A dead cat, a misplaced deed and the classification of a family's pet as a "potentially dangerous dog" were among a series of incidents that led to a rift between Lee County officials and a member of one of the area's oldest and most prominent families.
That rift, which started when businessman John Haley's pet Weimaraner killed a cat in the south Lee County Canuga neighborhood, ignited a series of angry correspondences between Haley and Lee officials and opened the possibility of legal action that threatened to leave the ongoing construction of a fire/EMS station near Smithville in limbo.
And while the sides have apparently settled into a shaky impasse, there remains a level of ill will that leaves future collaboration between the two sides unlikely.
"As I told Mr. (Alan) Ours and Mr. (Ed) Duffy, their actions in this incident was not the work of gentlemen," Haley said. "The county couldn't find the deed that I'd left at their offices until I told them I was having a change of heart about donating the land. Then it showed up.
"Mr. Duffy was meeting with me and promising to try and help find some kind of solution for the incident involving my dog, but right at the time the deed was found his communications suddenly stopped. I have some serious questions about the validity of the way this situation was handled and plan to further discuss it with my attorney."
The incident that led Haley to actually send the county a letter rescinding his gift of land for the fire/EMS station and had him calling the actions of Lee officials "immoral" and comparing county Animal Control personnel to "staff for a concentration camp" started on Oct. 8 of last year when Haley's family pet Flyboy went into neighbor Dorothy Griffin's yard on Alachua Lane and killed her pet cat.
Haley was in New Mexico on business at the time, and he said that his 17-year-old daughter Katie was ordered by police to stay at their home and wait for animal control after the incident was reported. She waited all day, Haley said, but no one came until the next day. Eventually, Flyboy was delivered on Oct. 12 for quarantine at Philema Animal Clinic.
"When I got Flyboy back (on Oct. 19), he was unable to bark and he was about 9 or 10 pounds off his weight," Haley said.
Before his Weimeraner was returned, Haley said he indicated to County Administrator Alan Ours that he had had a change of heart about the land gifted to the county for construction of the fire/EMS station. Haley had agreed after purchasing 500 acres of land from Dr. Scott Wall that he would donate land for the emergency facility to the county, and he'd dropped a signed deed for the land off at county offices in August.
Ours said the deed had gotten clipped to other papers in the office and was "lost" for a period of time.
"As I understand it, Mr. Haley came by and left a signed deed on the counter at the front desk in our offices," Ours said. "This happened during a time when staff was in transition, and apparently the deed was misplaced. I called Mr. Haley two weeks later and told him the situation with the deed. I asked if he'd come by and sign another copy.
"He said at the time it was no problem and that he'd be glad to sign another copy. Several days went by and then the incident with his dog occurred. At that point he refused to come and sign the deed. A few days after that the county clerk found the deed, and we recorded it."
Haley was angered that notification of the deed's recording came to him through the mail.
"The proper way to notify me would have been a phone call," he said. "By the time I got their notification that the deed had been found, it had already been recorded. I have some questions about the validity of the deed and thus the effectiveness of its recording."
Ours said, however, that he had checked with County Attorney Jimmy Skipper before recording the document. Skipper said Friday that the county had followed the law in the matter.
"When someone signs a deed that will convey property to another party, there are two elements," Skipper said. "First, there is the signing, witnessing and notorization of the deed. Second is the delivery. Once the delivery takes place, the law says conveyance is complete.
"The third element of the process, the recording, doesn't affect the validity of the document. All the recording does is, in legal terms, give notice to the world that 'X' conveys a property to 'Y.' From a legal standpoint, a deed is valid when it is signed and delivered. The fact that, in this case, the deed was placed in a wrong file does not impact its validity."
After Haley's dog was returned to him, he was sent a letter from then-Public Works Director William Clark notifying him that Flyboy, according to county ordinance, would be classified as a potentially dangerous dog. He was given 15 days to appeal. Haley also had to appear in Magistrate's Court and was ordered to pay a $320 fine.
Haley requested a hearing on the classification of his pet as potentially dangerous, but says he received notice of the Nov. 17 hearing on Nov. 18. Then-Assistant Public Works Director Mike Sistrunk notified Haley in a letter dated Nov. 18 that the hearing had been held in Haley's absence and that a board made up of a veterinarian, a county employee and a citizen of the county had upheld the classification ruling.
Haley was ordered to register his dog as a potentially dangerous animal, to provide proof of proper enclosure that would prevent the dog from escaping, to pay an annual registration fee of $50, to notify the county if the animal gets loose, unconfined, dies or is sold, and to notify the county within 10 days of leaving county jurisdiction.
He was told that failure to comply with all of the provisions would make Flyboy property of the county, and that the animal would then be "disposed of in a humane manner."
In a letter to Duffy, Haley accused the county of
imposing "stupid/draconian/immoral restrictions" on his pet and chided Sistrunk for his "outrageous supposition" that I should "imagine that Flyboy had killed (his neighbor's) child instead of their cat." He added, in reference to Animal Control personnel, "If I were looking for staff for a concentration camp, I know where I might start."
Sistrunk said he understands Haley's emotional response during the incident but said that he imposed county law in the case just as he would have for any other citizen.
"If I change the rules for one person -- no matter who that person is -- I'm the one who would be in trouble," Sistrunk said Friday. "I have to separate my personal feelings. I'm not going to jeopardize the county or my job by doing something that's not right.
"I understand Mr. Haley becoming emotional and upset about his animal; everyone does. But my blood pressure rises a bit when someone says that the people at Animal Control -- especially the volunteers who don't get paid a dime -- are cold-blooded and don't care about the animals. That's just not true."
Haley said that, now that the county has begun site work on the land he donated, he's concerned about an agreement he'd reached as a condition of the gift. He said in a Nov. 18 letter to Duffy that an access driveway he'd been promised appears to be "lost in the transaction" even though "it appears the contractor's driveway work is complete."
Ours said the county intends to honor its commitment.
"It was our agreement that he would have an access roadway to his property, and that is still our intent," the county administrator said. "If the driveway is not visible as of today, it's because the site is torn up for construction. This is not a concern to me.
"In fact, Mr. Haley's been on the site several times to look at the exact layout of the property as it relates to the access road. Mr. Haley reviewed the plan, and it was my understanding that any concerns had been resolved."
Many in the county had speculated that Wall made donation of the land for the fire/EMS station a condition of the $1.5 million sale to Haley, but the eye surgeon said Friday that was not the case.
"When I owned the land near Smithville, I was told that the county was going to put a fire/EMS station on property I owned," Wall said. "The way it was put to me, if I didn't donate the land, the county would have taken it through imminent domain.
"I wanted to build my (Wall Eye Care) surgery center, so I decided to sell farmland I owned around Smithville to pay for it. I sold Mr. Haley 500 acres of land at $3,000 an acre, but I certainly didn't put any conditions on the sale. I'm not going to make stipulations on anyone paying that kind of money."
Duffy said he hopes that time has soothed the anger that the episode generated. He said the county has listened to Haley's complaints throughout the incident and has tried to deal openly with him.
"We've been nothing but above-board in this," the County Commission
chairman said. "I truly understand Mr. Haley's concerns, and we have listened to what he's saying. In fact, Mr. Ours is looking at changes to our animal control ordinance pointed out by Mr. Haley that would bring it more in line with state law."
Haley's various family and business interests take up much of his time, but he's not been too busy to make sure county officials know just where he stands on the issues that have impacted him.
In a post script to the letter he wrote Duffy, Haley said, "A government entity with the wherewithal to put a citizen, any citizen, through such (continuing) miserable involvement as it has in this case, over a virtually unavoidable incident, an animal fight, such as has always happened and always will happen, does not need additional volunteer assets. It is already too big and trying to do too much.
"A bloated government hungry for problems to solve is a much greater threat to its citizens than a few loose dogs or dog-and-cat fights."