By Michael Howell
Jan Wisniewski, Chairman of the Ravalli County Planning Board, and Democratic candidate for House District 87, is ready to challenge City Hall. Wisniewski is spearheading a petition drive to place the issue of the Hamilton city ordinance banning the use of cell phones while driving on the November ballot.
The ordinance, which “regulates the use of hand held electronic communication devices while operating a motor vehicle,” was the subject of two separate public hearings and was approved on second reading on June 5. 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.
Wisniewski was among the opponents to the ordinance and gave extensive testimony against it in the hearings process. Now he has helped draft a petition to place the ordinance on the November ballot. He expressed confidence in being able to gather the required number of signatures, a little over 400, which is 15 % of the voters in the last city election.
The petition language has been filed at the Ravalli County Clerk and Recorder’s office. The Clerk has 21 days to accept or reject the petition as to form, usually on the advice of the County Attorney’s office. Once the proper form of the petition is accepted and it is approved for circulation, the petitioners will begin gathering signatures. Once the signatures are submitted they must be certified by the Clerk to be valid and to meet the required number. If that should happen the new ordinance would be suspended until the November elections. If it is approved by the voters it is once again city law. If it is voted down it cannot be proposed again for two years.
Wisniewski said that he believes the bulk of Hamilton residents don’t want the ordinance.
“Eight out of ten people I’ve talked to are against it,” he said. He said the testimony at the public hearings for and against the ordinance was about the same ratio. He notes that Hamilton Police Chief Ryan Oster’s testimony boiled down to the fact that there is no evidence from the police department’s records that the use of cell phones while driving is a problem.
“They passed the ordinance despite all the testimony against it,” said Wisniewski.
Wisniewski said he is also irked by the fact that the signs declaring that it is illegal to use cell phones while driving in the city limits were already purchased by the road and street department prior to the second and final public hearing on the ordinance.
“They didn’t give a hoot about that second public hearing,” said Wisniewski. “The decision had already been made. A bad law is a bad law. Having these people order the signs before the final decision sticks in my craw.”
Wisniewski noted that the ordinance was in fact amended at that final meeting to exempt ham radio operators from the ordinance. He said the odd thing about that is that the ham radio operators were already exempted, since everyone was already exempted from the ordinance if they were making emergency calls. He said that by adding the amendment it means that ham radio operators can use their “devices” whether it is for emergency calls or not.
Some of Wisniewski’s actions as Chairman of the Ravalli County Planning Board have been publicly controversial, such as allowing prayer at the meetings. His last minute registration, along with six other people, for seats as Democratic precinct representative also spurred controversy as did his filing as a Democrat in the legislative race for HD87. The Democratic Central Committee avidly disavowed him and his compatriots, claiming they were not Democrats.
Recently resigned Republican County Commissioner Matt Kanenwisher, when he was considering resignation, told the Bitterroot Star at that time that he was not certain that the people filing for those Democratic positions were Republicans, but he was certain that they were not Democrats. He called them “liars.”
Wisniewski was successful in becoming the Democratic candidate for HD87 in the primary. He read a letter over the phone that he recently received from Democratic U.S. Senator Max Baucus congratulating him on his victory.
“Baucus said he was willing to help me out in any way he could,” said Wisniewski.