08/24/12 8:00am

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Vince Taldone and his put bull, Champ, just a few weeks before Champ was put down.

In the fall of 2010, I read an article in the Riverhead News-Review about the Town Board reconsidering the town’s animal shelter euthanasia policy.

In the article, Supervisor Sean Walter was quoted as saying, “Some of them have been in there for close to six months. The more humane thing is not to leave them in there for another six months.”

In part, I agreed. Certainly warehousing animals is not very humane.

Councilman Jim Wooten, the town’s liaison to the shelter, noted that most dogs do get adopted, but the less desirable animals, primarily pit bulls, remain.

Pit bulls (including the American pit bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier and the Staffordshire bull terrier) are some of the gentlest breeds of dogs. The American Temperament Test Society (ATTS.org) gives the pit bull a very high passing rate of 90.6 percent, which is better than the beagle, the cocker spaniel, the miniature poodle and more than 100 other breeds.

I decided that I had to save one of the dogs, so I visited petfinders.com and saw a photo of a senior pit bull mix named Champ, who had been at the shelter for more than one year.

With Supervisor Walter’s comment in mind — as well as my 92-year-old mother’s recent comment that she was lonely — I went off to the shelter.

I fell in love with Champ as soon as I met him. He was quiet, friendly and had a funny walk. A kind volunteer named Pat Lynch explained that Champ never barked and was a very gentle animal who was found abandoned.

When I looked at Champ, standing in the prison-like atmosphere of the shelter, I could almost hear him saying, “Take me home, please!”

So I did.

My mother expected me to return with a small fluffy dog that could sit on her lap. She took one look at the 70-pound Champ and immediately decided that she was afraid of the gentle dog. In time, though, he would win her over.

Shortly after we brought him home, we discovered that he had Lyme disease, hook worm, advanced heart worm and a bladder infection. I could have returned him to the shelter because of medical treatment costs, which the town certainly would not cover (euthanasia is much more affordable). Champ was so loving that I couldn’t imagine parting with him. He had quickly become part of the family. He stayed.

Champ survived the treatments. I was thrilled. So thrilled that I installed a new back door with a sturdy doggie door especially for Champ.

He became even happier when I started taking him on two long walks a day.

I think I enjoyed the walks as much as he did. After living in my neighborhood for almost 12 years, I recognized many but knew almost none of my neighbors. Champ loved every one them and soon my neighbors began to recognize us. We had conversations and I got to know them better.

As for my mother, she started spending her time reminding me (as if I needed to be reminded) to make sure that the water bowl was full and to feed Champ on time. Champ made her giggle like a little girl whenever he would charge out his doggie door and run around the yard to meet me by the grill when I cooked chicken.

He made both of us smile every day and brought us great joy when he lived with us.

In addition to spending more time with Champ, I also started spending time walking dogs as a volunteer at the Riverhead animal shelter. I got to know a number of volunteers who selflessly spent much time and effort to walk, play and otherwise socialize the dogs to keep them from going crazy being locked up for long periods without human contact. Animals need a comforting, human touch as much as we humans do.

Initially, I joined in discussions with the town’s animal shelter advisory committee but the politics were overwhelming and the town was clearly not going to spend any additional monies to make things substantially better for the dogs. I decided to focus on the animals at the shelter and also on Champ.

Over the past almost two years, Champ’s “funny walk” became worse. It was, as we suspected, neurological damage (either from the Lyme disease I treated him for or his previous home). On the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 8, Champ went out of his doggie door for the last time. He fell and lost the use of his hind legs.

We had no choice but euthanasia. We adopted him so he wouldn’t be euthanized but the choice was the only responsible course of action.

The next night, I closed Champ’s doggie door. He was gone from our lives and changed the way I thought of pit bulls, as well as many of my friends, family and neighbors who all fell in love with this kind and loving animal. Although he lived only two more years after adoption, he certainly had a loving home that he deserved.

For all of Champ’s buddies at the Riverhead shelter, as well as other town and private facilities, I can only hope that other people will skip the puppy mills and find a place in their lives for the unconditional love of a shelter dog. For me, I will take a little time and surely find another kind, loving animal for whom I can open that doggie door again!

If you are interested in adopting a dog, visit the Riverhead animal shelter. You also may want to visit the YouTube site for New York Bully Crew (a rescue group on Long Island) where you can watch videos of dogs who need a loving home: youtube.com/NewYorkBullyCrew.

Vince Taldone, a retired urban planner, is an executive board member of the Flanders, Riverside and Northampton Community Association. He lives in downtown Riverhead.

10/17/11 2:00pm

The Riverhead school board claims its effort to pass the $78.4 million bond referendum was carried out with “honesty, creativity and integrity.”  Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth, as the board and its partner-in-deception, the so-called Friends of the Riverhead School District Bond combined forces and demonstrated that they are organizations with little honesty or integrity, but certainly plenty of creativity when it comes to deception and manipulation.

First, a little bit about the board’s creativity: they moved voting machines from a central high school location to voting stations at each of our elementary schools. Then, they quite cleverly scheduled K-4 parent-teacher nights on the same day as the election.  Was that date selected for the benefit of the students?  Of course not.

The scheduling was a creative and successful attempt to generate the greatest participation by elementary school parents who, coincidentally, are the most inclined to vote in favor of tax increases for school spending.  With all those parents filling the parking lots, frail seniors, the most likely “no” voters, would have a difficult time getting to the polls.  Creativity grade: A+

The school district’s informational materials, which told taxpayers that their tax bills would not increase for two years was also very creative. In reality, the bond interest will cost Riverhead taxpayers from day the bond is issued next year.

“Wait a minute,” you say. “The School Board told us that they would use reserve funds to offset the costs.”

Yes, they would take it out of the district’s savings account for a rainy day. Where did those rainy day funds come from? The Easter Bunny? No, from the taxpayers! The reserve spending has cost the taxpayers money and will continue to do so. Creativity grade: A+ Deception: A+  Honesty: D- Integrity: F

Under the New York State election law, campaigning at polling places is forbidden.  To my surprise, several parents told me the teachers were wearing “Vote Yes” buttons at polling locations.  If election law applied to Riverhead school elections, the teachers would have been forced to remove the campaign buttons or to leave the building.  But alas, the state education department, not the Suffolk County Board of Elections, regulates school elections and apparently the state does not object to campaigning at polling places for school elections.  Creativity grade: A+ Honesty and Integrity: F-

The morning after the board declared a 234-vote victory, Ann Cotton-DeGrasse, president of the school board, announced that she noticed a $4 million operating deficit in the next operating budget. Either she and her cronies immediately started working on the budget after the polls closed and through the night — or withheld information from the voting public. Somehow, I doubt she pulled an all-nighter. Deception grade: A+ Honesty and integrity grades: F-

And what about those Friends of the Riverhead School District Bond who contributed thousands upon thousands of dollars to the “Vote Yes’ campaign? Despite many requests, the “Friends” refused to identify their funders except as “concerned citizens.” I scratched my head to determine where they got all their money. Could it be from people who would be making money from this tax increase? Large construction companies? Bond counsel law firms? Bond underwriters? Teacher and administrator unions? We don’t know.

Others and I posted questions and requests on the “Friends”’ Facebook page. One posting suggested that, because the “Friends” refuse to identify their donors, that the “Friends” (and donors) had something to hide. The posts were deleted. Individuals were banned from the site. The “Friends” state that their page is “for information, awareness and discussion regarding the upcoming…vote. Please be honest, appropriate and spread the word!”

They should have written “This page is for citizens who support the bond and have the same concerns as us. All others will be silenced!” Deception grade: A+
I am a believer in free political speech by individuals, corporations and unions too.  But when a not-for-profit organization promoting an election issue refuses to identify its donors, I am left wondering and I fear for our democracy. The U.S. Supreme Court may have decided groups like “Friends of the Riverhead School District Bond” do not have to disclose their donors names or the amount of money donated to fight their cause.  The state could, though, impose sanctions against school districts that employ deceptive election practices — including polling place campaigning and the scheduling of parent-teacher nights (or any other kinds of events other than voting) at polling locations.

All the election manipulation that money could buy was deployed on Oct. 11, proving that secret sources of really big money, in cahoots with administrative officials, can be harnessed to manipulate votes.

I hope state education department commissioner John B. King Jr. can somehow intervene. The Riverhead school district and its “Friends” set terrible examples of democracy for the youth in Riverhead.  We need the education department to find ways to make sure these elections maintain their integrity, honesty and transparency. As it stands the Riverhead school board and the Friends of the Riverhead School District Bond have set excellent examples for deception, dishonesty and corruption. Their excellent use of creativity, however, will cost the taxpayers almost $80 million.

Vince Taldone is a Riverhead school district resident,  former Suffolk County Planning Commissioner and current president of the Flanders, Riverside and Northampton Community Association.