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Council hangs up on cell-phone law

NORTH BEND - It worked before it could even be put to use.

One day after a petition containing 883 signatures of North Bend residents calling for the adoption of initiative and referendum powers was delivered to the city clerk, the City Council declared its intent to do just that.

At the same time, council members decided not to override a veto of the cellular-phone ordinance that would have made driving an automobile and talking on a cell phone a primary offense within city limits, carrying a $100 fine.

The actions came as a surprise to everyone but the council members, who had been working throughout the day before their Tuesday, May 7, meeting to bring closure to one of the most controversial issues the city has dealt with in recent years.

They were prompted by the initiative and referendum petition submitted the previous day by North Bend resident David Cook, who had been spurred into gathering signatures because of the cell-phone ordinance.

Councilman Ed Carlson said he was "totally blown away" by the support Cook received.

"Eight hundred signatures - that was the biggie," he said last Wednesday. "Yesterday [May 7], we all started talking on the phone and decided the sooner this thing got settled, the better."

And while he had hoped for a different outcome, he said the council did its job properly.

"We'd done exactly what we were elected to do, which was to study the issue and reach a decision," Carlson said.

Many supporters of granting the city initiative and referendum powers pointed to the cell-phone ordinance as justification for adopting them, saying council members should be focusing on other issues confronting the city. They hoped to use the powers to counter the expected passage of the ordinance.

But the council's actions effectively turned the petition into a referendum of its own, with members saying they had heard the public and it was time to move on.

"Hopefully, it will demonstrate our most important job, which is listening," said Councilman Mark Sollitto. "There had been a growing level of concern about where we were headed on this."

The council meeting's dramatic turn of events began with Councilwoman Elaine Webber's request to temporarily suspend the rules. The council then unanimously approved a resolution declaring the city's intentions to adopt initiative and referendum powers.

That was followed by a 4-1 vote, with Sollitto voting no, to enact the cell-phone ordinance. Mayor Joan Simpson said she would veto the law, and while they had enough votes to override the veto, council members agreed to let the ordinance die.

Their next act of business was to repeal the inattentive driving ordinance passed in December. Then they ended the flurry of activity by unanimously approving a resolution urging the Legislature to ban using a cell phone while driving except in emergency situations.

Elaine Webber had been awake since 2 a.m. that day trying to arrive at a compromise. Much of the day was spent on the phone or composing e-mails to other council members. Early that evening, she informed the mayor as to what would happen at the meeting.

"It kind of took all day Tuesday to put it all together," she said.

"It didn't take rocket science to know that if it wasn't for the cell-phone [ordinance], none of this would have happened."

In the week leading up to the council meeting, there had been some talk of changing the proposed cell-phone ordinance, including making it a secondary offense, or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, expanding it to cover hands-free devices, which had been exempted.

Councilman Bill Wittress said after months of wrangling, it was time to come to some type of conclusion.

"The thought at the end of the day was they were making too many compromises," he said.

He explained the issue was not whether there was enough evidence to indicate that cell phones contribute to unsafe driving, it was who should be responsible for addressing the problem.

"It boils down to [Councilman] Jack Webber: He put together so much documentation, so much scientific research ... it really is almost not debatable," Wittress said.

And while much of the attention will be placed on the city adopting initiative and referendum powers and the veto of the cell-phone ordinance, the council's final vote of the evening was equally important.

"We sent a 5-0 resolution to the state saying we could pass this, but we think it's your job," Wittress said.

Even though he cast the lone vote against the cell-phone ordinance, Sollitto agreed that the information collected by Jack Webber and Carlson was tough to argue against.

"It was much more difficult to cast a no vote," he said. But the councilman added ultimately the issue was better left for the state government.

"It made the most sense to me ... that if this is to be addressed, it needs to be addressed at the state level," Sollitto said.

Simpson formally vetoed the cell-phone ordinance on Wednesday, May 8 - her first veto as mayor.

"I think it was an elegant solution to a difficult issue," she said. "It did accomplish a lot of the goals that everybody had."

It accomplished Cook's goal. After spending a month collecting more than 800 signatures for his initiative and referendum petition, he said, "Never in a million years did I expect this to conclude this quickly."

Cook needed 502 of North Bend's 2,864 registered voters to sign the petition, forcing the city to adopt initiative and referendum powers. They will go into effect in 90 days, and he said they will serve as a reminder of the will of the people.

"Once the powers are there, the council knows they're there," he said.

With a 4-1 vote, the council had enough votes to override the mayor's veto, but that would not have been in the city's best interests, said Jack Webber.

"I am not interested in getting involved in a political free-for-all or melee," he said, adding that he still believes talking on a cell phone while driving poses a safety risk.

"I really wish it was true that it's not serious enough to put a law to, but that's not true," he said.

Elaine Webber said the council did accomplish the most important goal of the cell-phone ordinance, even though it won't become law.

"I think we raised a lot of awareness," she said.

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