By Charlie McKee
Town Council Wades into the Tricky Waters of Legislating Cell Phone Use in Vehicles
At the Silver City Town Council regular meeting Tuesday evening, July 10, Councilor José Ray, Jr. introduced a Notice of Intent (NOI) Ordinance to regulate "the use of hand-held cellular and radio-telephone devices by persons driving motor vehicles and bicycles on the streets of the Town…"
The introduction by Councilor Ray of Notice of Intent Ordinance No. 1207 to amend the New Mexico Uniform Traffic Code (adopted as the Silver City Traffic Ordinance in Chapter 50, Section 50-1, of the Municipal Code of the Town of Silver City) to prohibit cellular and radio telephone use and the subsequent testimony of Silver City Police Chief Ed Reynolds sparked significant debate among the Councilors, Chief Reynolds, Town Attorney Robert Scavron, and Mayor James Marshall. The debate focused on the following issues:
• Chief Reynolds – Texting while operating a motor vehicle has been proven to cause accidents, including texting while stopped at a traffic light and failing to notice light changes.
• Councilor Cynthia Bettison – The wording of the ordinance needs to be refined for several reasons: it does not include "reading" of cellular devices such as smart phones; it does not distinguish between operating a vehicle versus pulling off to the side of a road to make a call; nor does it include use of games or other applications that do not require "dialing, talking, or entering data."
• Counselor Scavron – The language of the ordinance should be made broader to encompass looking at photos or displays, flipping from one screen to another, and other actions while operating a vehicle.
• Mayor James Marshall – The ordinance begs the question of why the ordinance is not addressing other dangerous distractions while operating a motor vehicle, such as: looking for CDs and operating CD players and radios; trying to control children's behavior in the back seat of the vehicle; arguing with another passenger; etc.
• Chief Reynolds – Handheld devices are more dangerous because they create a blind spot for the operator of a vehicle when the device is held to the ear.
• Mayor Marshall – Law enforcement and emergency medical personnel are surrounded by various distracting electronic devices (such as radios, radar, lights, computers, etc.) -- many more than a private citizen's simple cell phone -- in their motor vehicles to which they must respond and must operate while the vehicle is in motion. Why are they exempt from the ordinance?
• Councilor Bettison – Hands-free devices are as much of a distraction to the operator of a vehicle as are handheld devices in that the operator of the vehicle must still search for telephone numbers, answer the calls, etc.
As a result of the debate, Councilor Mike Morones observed that the debate itself indicated that the ordinance was an excellent candidate as a Notice of Intent to allow the Town's residents to present their views in public hearings at the Council meetings. NOI Ordinance No. 1207 was then voted upon and approved by the Town Council.
In other New Business, the Council approved Resolution No. 2012-16 allowing participation in the New Mexico Local Government Road Fund Program in order to make improvements in pavement and sidewalks on Santa Rita Street near Skate Park. It also approved changing the regular Town Council Meeting scheduled for August 28, 2012, to August 23, 2012.
During the Input section of the Council meeting, Starr Belsky, Co-Chair of the Arts and Cultural District (ACD) Coordinating Council, informed the Town Council that she and Lois Duffy, member of the ACD Coordinating Council, had traveled to Albuquerque at their own expense to represent and promote Silver City at the Albuquerque Centennial Summerfest. The Summerfest, held on June 16, 2012, in the Albuquerque Downtown Arts District, was a gathering of all the Arts and Cultural Districts throughout the state. Belsky found that most people she encountered in Albuquerque were not aware of Silver City, its location, or its many attractions for visitors. Belsky urged the Council to support future Town representation at other festivals throughout New Mexico to promote tourism in Silver City.
During the Reports section of the Council meeting, Cissy McAndrew, Executive Director of the Southwest New Mexico Green Chamber of Commerce, reported that the Green Chamber had experienced an excellent year. She noted the following:
• The Visitors Center is operating smoothly 7 days a week;
• The Visitors Center's telephone number will be published in this year's telephone books;
• The Green Chamber is tracking the number of visitors to the center by month and almost met the goal of 15,000 visitors for the year;
• Statistical trends will be available going forward as a result of the tracking;
• The number of visitors has been down recently due to the fires and the closures of the Cliff Dwellings and Catwalk; and
• The Silver City Visitors' Guide has been published and was distributed at the Santa Fe Governor's Conference in Santa Fe in May.
In her report, McAndrew emphasized the collaborative efforts of the Green Chamber in working with the Deming Chamber of Commerce to share visitors and encourage them to stay in the area longer than they might have planned. She also reported on the collaborative work of the Green Chamber with the Forest Service to quickly respond to the national media coverage of local fires with positive public relations messages about Silver City and its attractions.
Following McAndrew's report, Nick Seibel, Manager of the MainStreet Project, informed the Council that July 21, 2012, will be Big Ditch Day in Silver City. At 2:00 pm on July 21, there will be a dedication ceremony for the official Big Ditch sign in Big Ditch Park.
Lastly, Town Manager Alex Brown reported that the Town had received $8.97 million in Gross Receipts Tax in fiscal year 2011, the largest amount in the Town's history. The amount of Lodgers' Tax received was also the largest in the Town's history. These numbers were somewhat offset by a shortfall in water and sewage taxes. Mayor Marshall asked Brown to confirm that this was accomplished without any tax increases to the Town's residents and was assured that that was the case.