By Michael Howell
The Hamilton City Council passed an ordinance on second reading that will prohibit the use of handheld electronic devices while operating a motor vehicle in the city limits. The ordinance drew some last minute appeals for an amendment to make an exception for ham radio operators and some criticism from people against the regulation entirely. The ordinance was amended to exempt licensed amateur radio operators and passed on a 4 to 2 vote. A motion was subsequently passed to begin implementation of the new ordinance 90 days from the time of passage of the second reading. A 30-day waiting period before an ordinance can take effect is required by law. The Council decided to extend that to 90 days to give people a chance to adapt to the new ordinance.
A few local amateur radio operators, the state section manager for the Amateur Radio Operators of Montana, Doug Dunn, Ravalli County Red Cross Disaster coordinator Dallas Erickson and Lew Casely, representing the 85 member Bitterroot Amateur Radio Club and the associated Ravalli County Amateur Radio Emergency Service, spoke in favor of an amendment to exempt amateur radio operators from the ordinance. They all stressed the crucial role that amateur radio operators play in emergency situations. Casely pointed out that the federal licensing regulations require amateur radio operators to provide emergency communications in situations such as flooding, severe weather events and fires. Dunn said the ordinance would be crippling for radio operators in the Hamilton area during emergencies. One radio operator pointed out that the current ordinance already contains an exemption for people operating a two-way radio for business purposes. He said licensed ham radio operators should also get an exemption.
Erickson said that he was not representing the Red Cross but speaking from a lot of experience working in disaster relief. He said that the Red Cross was not an emergency response organization but comes in afterward offering much needed services, such as food and shelter, for disaster victims.
“We are not first responders but we are involved and we often depend on the communications provided by amateur radio operators,” said Erickson.
Other members of the public were critical of the entire ordinance.
Dan Cox, who is running for U.S. Senator on the Libertarian ticket, quoted Ben Franklin, saying, “Those who will trade liberty for security will have neither.” He called the ordinance a kind of “legal plunder.” He said it amounts to taxation through citation.
Jim Ellingson said he was “totally against the ordinance,” calling it a victimless crime. He said the person who has a wreck due to carelessness should be penalized, not the person who is simply talking on a cell phone and injuring no one.
Jan Wisniewski recounted the history of the consideration of the ban and quoted some statistics related to cell phone use and driving. He said the ordinance prohibits a lot more than cell phones. It also prohibits the use of many other devices including laptops, MP3 players and perhaps the car radio since you have to touch the knob to turn it on and change the station and control the volume. He said there are no really “hands free” devices in existence that would be allowed by the ordinance.
The refrain echoed by a few others was: don’t penalize everyone for the actions of a few irresponsible drivers.
Councilor Al Mitchell made the motion to pass the ordinance with an amendment to make an exception for licensed amateur radio operators, calling it a safety issue.
Councilor Mel Monson said he felt angry about the seatbelt law that subjects you to a $20 fine. He said the fine for cell phone use while driving, though not set in the statute, would eventually end up at the statutory limit of $400.
Councilor Lynette Helgeland said that she was 100 percent against the ordinance and suggested it be sent back to committee.
Councilor Jenny West defended the ordinance, saying that similar laws had been adopted in ten states and in several Montana cities already including Bozeman, Helena, Billings, Butte, Whitefish, Anaconda, and Deer Lodge. She said it was a safety issue and it was timely and important to pass it.
The amended ordinance was passed on a 4 to 2 vote with Monson and Helgeland dissenting.
Special Projects Director Dennis Stranger then raised the question of enforcement and asked if the Council had any direction for the Police Department in the matter. The possibility of a warning period was discussed. As a result a motion was made to make enforcement of the ordinance effective after 90 days following approval to allow time for the public to get warnings before fines are collected. Chief Ryan Oster said that the police could not issue any warnings for a violation of an ordinance that isn’t in effect. He said signs would be posted in town and along the highway alerting drivers to the new law.
The vote to make the ordinance effective 90 days after approval was approved along the same lines in a 4 to 2 vote.
In other business the Council:
• approved amendments to the covenants on Stonegate Meadows;
• confirmed Shawn Williams as Probationary Police Officer;
• approved a CTEP project agreement for Fairgrounds Road;
• approved a controlled burn at the Council on Aging;
• approved a request from the Hamilton High School Speech, Debate and Drama Team for a Fireworks display on June 22, 2012 or July 24, 2012;
• approved spending up to $10,000 for the City’s Fireworks Show;
• authorized the purchase of four ASME Cascade bottles for holding compressed air for a total of $12,600;
• approved a zoning designation of Mobile Home Park for property known as Hamilton Mobile Village Trailer Court;
• approved a zoning designation of Single Family Residential for property located at 700 Desta;
• approved a zoning designation of Multiple Family Residential for property located at 173 Glenroy;
• approved a zoning designation of Multiple Family Residential for property know as Pine Park Condominiums;
• approved a zoning designation of Mobile Home Park for property located at 101 Taylor;
• approved an ordinance on first reading establishing hours of operation for transient vendors from 6 AM to 9 PM with the Mayor authorized to make exceptions;
• approved an ordinance on first reading that would restrict chickens, rabbits, rodents and ferrets to cages and fenced areas in the city;
• approved an amendment to the zoning ordinance regulating animals and City Parks establishing rules for dogs. All dogs must be on a leash except in River Park and in the Dog Park. No food may be taken into the dog park.