Penalty with cell phone, texting ban in Marietta debated

It may take some time before proposed legislation is passed to ban texting or talking on cell phones and using other hand held devices while driving the streets of Marietta.

The ordinance was slated for introduction during last week’s city council meeting, but it was pulled from the agenda at the request of Mayor Joe Matthews who said the measure would need some further discussion.

During a meeting of council’s police and fire committee Tuesday some members were concerned that the proposed penalty for a first-time offense of the law, which includes a 60-day license suspension, would be too stiff.

“I don’t think we need to do a license suspension on the first offense,” said Councilman Mike McCauley, D-2nd Ward. “If it’s a second offense, yes.”

City law director Paul Bertram III, who drafted the legislation, said the penalty phase of the law is ultimately up to council.

“But I would propose the first offense be treated as a minor misdemeanor with a fine of up to $150 plus any court costs,” he said. “And if there’s a second offense within two years, make it a fourth-degree misdemeanor with a mandatory court appearance, and the court would have the discretion to impose license suspension or jail time.”

Bertram said police would issue a citation to drivers for a minor misdemeanor on a first offense of the new law, and the required fine would have to be paid at municipal court.

Councilman Tom Vukovic, D-4th Ward, read an emailed letter from Marietta Municipal Court Judge Janet Dyar-Welch, advising the council members to be reasonable in development of the texting and talking ban.

She noted a parent who’s driving and sees a cell phone call coming from his or her child would likely disregard the ban and answer the call, not knowing whether the call may involve an emergency situation.

Vukovic added that enforcement of the proposed law may prove to be difficult.

“Would our police be able to enforce this?” he asked, noting that police in New York City, which also has a texting and talking while driving ban, are having trouble determining from their patrol cars whether drivers are texting.

“They’re having to drive SUVs so they can see down into cars and tell whether drivers are texting or not,” Vukovic said.

The state of Ohio already has a law in place banning texting while driving, and Vukovic asked why the city should pursue its own ordinance.

“We’re banning both texting and hand-held cell phone use or the use of other hand-held wireless electronic devices,” Bertram said, adding his personal belief that the state law is too weak.

He noted under the Ohio law adult drivers over the age of 18 can only be charged with a minor misdemeanor for texting while driving as a secondary violation, meaning a primary violation like having a tail light out or speeding would also have to occur before police could stop the vehicle.

Bertram also said the state law is more stringent for younger drivers, age 15 through 17, making texting or talking on a cell phone while driving a primary offense that includes fines and drivers license suspension.

The proposed city law would treat both teen and adult drivers the same.

“The state law for adults is almost unenforceable, so we have to do something different in the city,” said Councilman Roger Kalter, D-1st Ward. “Something has to be done or someone is going to get killed.”

Bertram said he would take the council members’ comments into consideration and would rework the proposed legislation to address their concerns, then bring the revision back to a future committee meeting.

He said it could be after the first of the year before a first reading of the legislation comes back to council.

In other business Tuesday, city safety-service director Jonathan Hupp told council’s lands, buildings and parks committee that the gazebo has been closed along Ohio Street near the Ohio River levee.

He said the wooden pillars supporting the gazebo roof are rotting, creating a hazard for anyone standing near the facility.

“It will remain closed until the structure can be repaired,” Hupp said. “And we’re asking the public to please avoid that area until the repairs are completed.”

He said the repairs will include replacing the wooden pillars with metal supports in a polymer casing that will resemble the dilapidated wooden posts.

Hupp also noted the section of River Trail around the south side of the gazebo has been closed to pedestrians and bicyclists until the repairs are made.

Finally during Tuesday’s meetings, city engineer Joe Tucker said the city would be approved for an Ohio Public Works Commission grant to pay for Marietta’s 2014 citywide asphalt paving program, but the amount of the grant would be diminished by $22,000.

He said the city had applied for a $400,000 grant, but during a meeting with the OPWC’s executive committee earlier this month the agency’s executive board asked each community receiving a 2014 award to accept $22,000 less than the full amount.

“But the committee also asked if the city would like to receive that $22,000 in a loan with 0 percent interest that could be paid back over 10 years,” Tucker added. He said the loan could be repaid at a rate of $2,200 a year and the city would not have to dip into the streets maintenance fund to cover that cost.

The committee members agreed.

Bertram said legislation would have to be developed to apply for the loan after the newly-elected council members take office in January.