Charleston's Tourism Commission on Wednesday evening unanimously upheld a 30-day suspension against Carolina Polo and Carriage Co., which received the most numerous and most serious citations during an industry-wide inspection nearly a year ago for the way it maintains its horses and stables.
The city order requires that the company close for seven days and allows for an additional 23-day shutdown if it receives any more citations that result in convictions during a three-month period. The weeklong closure marks the longest in city history.
The decision to uphold the suspension came after a two-hour hearing and another half-hour of deliberations Wednesday. It followed an initial suspension order in November, which required the carriage company to shut down during Thanksgiving week, after Carolina Polo pleaded guilty to four code violations at an August trial.
Scheduling conflicts stalled the appeal until now.
Carolina Polo's attorney, Capers Barr, presented three reasons for the commission to overturn the city decision, two dealing with the language of the law and one with fairness.
Barr argued that the city singled out Carolina Polo when the inspection showed problems at all five carriage tour operators. He pointed out in the veterinarian's report that other companies worked horses underweight by 150 pounds and 200 pounds, used ill-fitting harnesses and fed the animals improper rations.
The findings against Carolina Polo included providing altered medical records, cleaning stalls in a manner that creates toxic gas and giving horses the lowest-quality feed and hay. Office of Tourism Management Director Vanessa Turner- Maybank could have suspended its operations for a maximum of 180 days.
"These are things that affected the life and welfare of the animals: bleach, eating shavings, no salt," Turner-Maybank said.
Municipal Judge Michael Molony assessed the company nearly $1,800 in fines at the August trial, including the maximum $1,092 for feeding practices alone. He suspended portions of fines related to harnesses and stalls and suspended for a year the entire fine related to record-keeping.
"It's not fair that Carolina Polo should be twice punished for something it's already taken responsibility for," Barr said.
City attorney Ravi Sanyal pointed out that no other company was convicted of violations.
"A much stronger punishment and a message the city will send is a suspension, due to the fact that these animals were endangered," Sanyal said.
Barr said after the hearing that he plans to appeal to circuit court. Sanyal said the city cannot assign a date for the suspension until the 30-day window for that next appeal expires.