Town Council discusses moped renewals for 2021

Thu, 01/28/2021 - 5:30pm
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The Town Council met virtually on Wednesday, Jan. 20 to begin discussions on moped safety and to act on the annual renewal of moped rental licenses for 2021, but agreed to continue discussions to offer more time for public input. Earlier last week, over 50 letters were sent to Town Hall from the public, asking the council to pause on the renewal of moped licenses.

“The reason I asked to do this is because we have received many, many comments on this and through emails asking to wait for more public input before we vote on this,” said First Warden André Boudreau. “I’m asking the council to possibly wait a week to discuss this, and I would also ask for input on this from the moped operators and the Town Manager [Maryanne Crawford].”

Many comments and letters sent in from the public were also sparked by Crawford’s recent memorandum dated Jan. 14 (the memorandum can be found on ClerkBase). The memorandum is a framework for summer 2021, which “outlines steps the moped owners’ agreed to undertake and the town’s action to enhance residents’ and visitors’ safety for the upcoming busy season.” Crawford has been in ongoing conversations about rental mopeds since last summer with Councilor Martha Ball, Administrative Assistant to the town manager Shirlyne Gobern, Police Lt. Paul Deane, Block Island Medical Center Director, Dr. Tom Warcup and moped business owners John Leone, Leo Leone, Paul Filippi, Mike Finnimore and Dana Hagopian.

The actions and steps the moped owners have agreed to undertake for the summer of 2021 are as follows: replace current horns with a car horn; require all drivers to wear closed shoes; all moped drivers will be required to wear a wrist band that will identify them to island business establishments as being a moped rental driver; and require all riders to wear helmets. The moped owners also requested the town re-activate the Safety Committee.

The town’s proposed actions for the summer of 2021 are: the town has ordered new ‘no mopeds’ signs to replace current signs on all town dirt roads; the Highways Department will also be installing other safety signs; the town will be purchasing and implementing a new numbering system for all mopeds, with each moped to have its own unique number; the town is working with a community member who is building an app for moped users to plug in destinations and steer drivers away from the dirt roads; and two State Troopers will continue to provide service from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

Sarah Bacon, founder of #RespectBI, joined the call to provide her thoughts on Crawford’s memorandum. The #RespectBI movement was “formed last summer in response to the uptick in reckless moped behavior, crashes and burden on island services – medical, rescue and police,” stated Bacon. A virtual community panel discussion was held in August 2020 to address the island’s relationship to the mopeds.

“From that panel discussion, conversations with the new town manager, town councilors, legal research, community surveys, sentiments and proposals in The Block Island Times, social media and from hundreds of letters sent to #RespectBI, we drafted a memo of recommendations for moped reform to be implemented before the start of the 2021 season – legal, feasible actions within the strictures of the consent agreement. This memo was submitted to the town manager and town council,” said Bacon.

“The recommendations for moped reform presented last week by Maryanne Crawford, informed by regular meetings with moped operators and others are, plainly put, way too weak. Lipstick on a pig of an existential problem facing our island. Superficial proposals like bracelets and new signage, while helpful, will not bring about systemic reform, what we need. They will not ensure safety of visitors and residents alike. They will not relieve the overwhelming burden on our vital and heroic medical and rescue services,” continued Bacon.

“#RespectBI requests to see a new education and training protocol for all moped renters, and new enforcement measures such as the establishment of a Moped Enforcement Officer position to be appointed by either Town Council or the Police Chief,” she concluded.

Councilor Keith Stover also addressed a key element for increasing safety measures: moped training on Weldon’s Way, which is a public road being utilized by private moped operations. Weldon’s Way is also an area which sees added congestion from pedestrian traffic, delivery trucks and parking.

“Do we have a simple sentence that says there will not be training on Weldon’s Way? Because that is a fundamental bright line,” said Stover.

“They will not be training on Weldon’s Way, and the staff will be prepared to enforce that,” answered Crawford.

Attorney Beth Noonan, representing moped operations Island Mopeds and Miles Unlimited, reminded the council of the legal parameters the town has to work under with the moped operations.

“I don’t want to stand in the way of any productive discussions. My only point is to remind the town and every one of the parameters we are dealing with on the legal side. A week’s continuance to discuss this does not harm us. However, we do want the licenses approved as soon as possible. I have no intention to stand in the way between the town and moped operator discussions,” said Noonan.

Noonan had previously sent a letter to the Town Council addressing Crawford’s memorandum, and Rhode Island laws on mopeds:

“As you are aware, R.I. Gen Laws §31- 19.3-5 limits the Town’s authority to adopt ordinances governing mopeds etc. and requires that said ordinances be reasonable. In the ‘Extension of Settlement Agreement’ filed in RI Civil No. 95-CV-326B and NH Civil No. 1:95-CV-356-JRM, Paragraph 5 allows Moped License holders ‘to challenge the enactment of any ordinance . . . which seeks to regulate rental mopeds beyond the specifically enumerated powers delegated to the Town in R.I. G.L. 31-19.3- 5.”

“As a lawyer, I look at the state enabling legislation upon which you have to enact your municipal ordinances and it needs to conform to that. I’m just telling you the parameters I’m dealing with at the state law, and federal litigation,” said Noonan.

Boudreau asked Town Solicitor Kathy Merolla to provide some insight into the steps the town can take regarding the town and moped’s Extension of Settlement Agreement, which was signed in August 2017 and will be reviewed in 2022 when the settlement agreement will expire.

“The ability to regulate mopeds was given by the legislature many years ago to Block Island. We are limited in what we can do by the statutes that give us that power, by the case law that interpreted those statutes, by the federal consent agreement from many years ago as amended, and by the case law in the courts, which basically outline what our limitations are,” said Merolla. “That does not mean however that we cannot add new limitations, it’s just that I need to review each proposed limitation on a case-by-case basis to determine whether or not it’s permissible under the current statutory scheme and the case law that is interpreting it,” said Merolla.

“This is years of mistrust,” said Boudreau. “I think a lot of people are thinking that if we give the licenses out, that the moped operators will walk away from the table and that will be the end of that. We need to start rebuilding that trust. We are constrained by the law until 2022. I’m going to do what I possibly can to work with this.”