Representatives for horse-drawn tour operator Carolina Polo and Carriage Co. pleaded guilty in city court Wednesday to four code violations related to the way the company maintains its horses and stables.
Municipal Judge Michael Molony assessed nearly $1,800 in fines, including the maximum $1,092 penalty for feeding practices alone. Molony suspended portions of the fines related to harnesses and stalls and suspended for a year the entire fine related to record-keeping.
He also asked, but did not order, that Carolina Polo provide free tours to standout students at James Simons Elementary School downtown.
The courtroom players were familiar with each other. Carolina Polo attorney Capers Barr, a former county solicitor, mentioned that city of Charleston Attorney Ravi Sanyal previously worked as an assistant
solicitor, while Molony alluded to Barr's fondness for the city (Barr served as chairman of Mayor Joe Riley's campaign committee) and referred to Carolina Polo Manager Robert Knoth as "Bobby."
Speaking to Barr, Molony said, "Like you, I've known Bobby all my life, but I have to put on a black robe and deal with this."
City officials deferred two additional violations related to reflectors on the carriages and microchips on the animals, both of which the company corrected.
Officials dropped an additional five violations assessed after the company did not meet the initial deadlines to change its operation.
Perhaps the greater test lies ahead: Because Carolina Polo pleaded guilty to four violations, city officials could suspend its operations for 180 days, the longest time allowed by city regulations.
When Molony asked Office of Tourism Management Director Vanessa Turner-Maybank if she anticipated another proceeding to address a possible suspension, she said, "We intend to enforce the franchise agreement."
City officials did not provide a time frame for that proceeding after court.
In the interim, Carolina Polo must bring in its veterinarian to follow up on each of the six tickets within the next 30 days and issue a report to the city.
The citations stem from an inspection of all five carriage tour operators in Charleston, the first comprehensive report since the city updated its ordinance in 2007. Barr suggested that his client seemed singled out because, though all five companies received violations, the city pursued only Carolina Polo's case.
After trial, Sanyal said Carolina Polo received greater scrutiny because it received far more citations than any other company.
City officials brought the veterinarian who performed the inspection, Amy Hayek, onto the witness stand to explain the violations, while Carolina Polo called its own veterinarian, John Malark, to dispute and answer certain points. The trial took more than two hours.
Hayek told the court about incomplete medical records and others with date changes.
"This particular company had no record of the disposal of any of their animals that they had euthanized or that had died," she said.
Malark said a few horses died during the time, and he blamed his own corrections for the perceived "alterations" to existing records.
Hayek said "all of the floor inside each stall was wet, and there did not appear to be any bedding," and city tourism manager Danielle Dillahey said the stalls did not meet city regulation size.
Barr described the Knoth family going into its barn on Hayne Street in the old City Market with hammers and nails to convert eight stalls into six more spacious ones. He also said the company equipped each stall with salt for the horses and that it purchased new harnesses to replace a few that had been patched together.
Offering a statement to the court, Knoth remembered when tourism season meant that short spring window "when Northerners would come down and see the azaleas bloom." He said now that seasons lasts all year and drives the local economy.
"Unfortunately, we have neglected to satisfy some of the newest regulations," he said. "And I apologize for the failure."