The debate over the new, though as yet unenforced, cellphone ordinance, one of the most hotly contested issues in the area, continued at Wednesday night’s Ordinance Committee meeting at City Hall.
In the end, though, the repeal effort was halted, or at least setback temporarily.
The council chambers were filled with about 30 people, crossing vast ranges of viewpoints and ages, and nearly every one of them contributed to the discussion.
The meeting began with Andrew Brekke, the committee’s chair, explaining the procedure, where people who want to repeal the ordinance would argue first, followed by rebuttals by those who want it to stay.
Councilman Rick Dow kicked off the debate by explaining he wanted to repeal the ban to try to settle “some consternation in the community, ” not to endorse texting while driving.
“Being proponents of repealing this does not mean we are proponents of distracted driving, ” Dow said, adding later in the meeting that it is more about being “pro-personal responsibility. ”
He continued with a study indicating that states that passed a ban had actually seen an increase in accidents involving cellphone use while driving, by 1 percent in Washington and 9 percent in Minnesota.
Councilman Allen “Woody” Woodwick countered Dow’s reference to the study by saying you can find studies that say anything.
For Woodwick, driver’s licenses “are not rights or guaranteed freedoms. They are a privilege. And if you are driving in a manner that is not safe, you can have those privileges revoked. ”
The community spoke up next, again with pro-repeal speakers going first.
Several Havre High School students spoke out at the meeting, including Clarissa Martin and Mason Case who spoke against the ban, mostly claiming that lots of distractions interfere with drivers and asking why this one needed special attention.
Local business owners, including Brad Lotton, spoke to the necessity of using a cellphone almost at all times, including while driving, in running their respective businesses.
Everyone agreed that texting is a hazard, but a ban on all “handheld electronic communication devices” goes too far.
Another Havre High School student, senior Kaity McKnight, was the first to speak in opposition to the repeal.
She thought something may need to be done, but thought a question should be considered first.
“Is it the cellphone that is the problem, or is it the driver that is the problem? Go to the source, ” McKnight said. “If it is the phones, then thanks for taking it away. If not, then something else may need to be done. ”
Bill Thackeray told the council he thought the law worked. While many argued that distracted or careless driving laws already cover this issue, Thackeray said those laws are too vague, so people don’t know definitively what not to do. This cellphone ordinance is clear enough that people know what not to do.
Val Murri tried to address criticisms of the ordinance that he helped get passed.
“I know we cannot legislate behavior, ” Murri said. “Stop signs don’t always stop people. Stop lights don’t. It depends on the person. ”
For Murri, it doesn’t matter how many people complain about the ordinance. What matters is the safety of the driving public on Havre’s roads.
He also said “it’s redundant to put a law into place, then turn around and repeal it. ”
New Ward 1 council member Bonnie Parenteau agreed and thought the city’s attention was deserved elsewhere.
“Havre has a lot of issues I’d like us to focus on, ” Parenteau said, like economic development and fixing the streets, sidewalks and other infrastructure, “so let’s leave this ban and work on something else for the city of Havre. ”
Krista Solomon, wife of Mayor Tim Solomon and executive director of the HELP Committee, said it wasn’t just council members who are tired of this debate.
“Look back at your notes and all the hearings, ” Solomon said. “People aren’t going to keep coming out to tell you how they feel. ”
Gerry Grabofsky recounted a few anecdotes of distracted drivers nearly causing accidents downtown and one of a young man walking with a cellphone nearly knocking an elderly woman over.
“If you can’t walk and do it, you shouldn’t be driving, ” Grabofsky said.
The council asked Chief of Police Kirk Fitch, at that point, how many warnings had been issued since the law went into effect on Oct. 1. Fitch said five drivers had been warned.
Council and committee member Janet Trethewey responded to numerous complaints that decisions were being made based on nation- or statewide statistics, with no Havre-specific numbers.
“As much as we like to think we are special, we are not, ” Trethewey said.
She explained she didn’t mean that to sound insulting, but in her job at Montana State University-Northern, she pores over nationwide, statewide and local statistics and, proportionally, Havre is always close to the average.
Some of her students from California, she said, are surprised by the controversy here, because the law has been in place in California for years, where Trethewey said it had, over time, affected behavior and lessened the problem.
Dow took issue with that claim, rebutting with a more recent LA county law forbidding footballs and frisbees on a beach.
“Do we want to go there? ” Dow asked. “Are we going to get California-ized as soon as possible? That’s the beauty of Montana, that ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ attitude. And we’re in danger of losing that.
“Are we going to ban ATVs on the streets? What about a helmet law? Would you support that Woody? [Woodwick said no] That’s the road we’re heading down now. ”
Val Murri countered, saying “This is a society of laws. This is a safety issue, protecting the travelling public. ”
Joe Parenteau — Hill County Disaster and Emergency Services coordinator, former firefighter and Bonnie’s husband — had the final word of the debate.
“This boils down to one issue for me, human life, ” Parenteau said. “If it does save a life, you’ll never see that statistic. ”
Dow moved to send the repeal to the full council. Brekke seconded the motion. The two Republicans voted for it. Democrats Woodwick and Trethewey voted against it.
The debate once again quiets down, for now.