N.C. Supreme Court To Review Chapel Hill’s Cell Phone Ban And Tow Rules

CHAPEL HILL- The North Carolina Supreme Court announced Friday it will hear the case involving the Town Of Chapel Hill’s cell phone driving ban and towing rules.

In 2012 the town passed a ban on cell phone use while driving and approved new regulations for tow truck operators that capped fees and mandated more signage in lots.

George King of George’s Towing sued the town in protest, saying the rules are unduly burdensome to his business.

Both ordinances were set to take effect last summer, but King’s lawsuit has put the regulations on hold indefinitely. A 2013 ruling by the N.C. Court of Appeals held that the town could enforce the ordinances, but King’s request for review by the state Supreme Court has put both on hold once again.

You can read the Town’s full press release here.

Kleinschmidt: Hands-Free Phone Option While Driving Should Be Considered

CHAPEL HILL – Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt championed the ruling of the state Court of Appeals Tuesday that reversed a previous lower court ruling to strike down Chapel Hill’s ordinances on regulating towing companies.

Kleinschmidt says the court gave the proper authority back to the town regarding towing regulations—but a part of the ruling was also upholding the Town’s total ban on the use of cell phones while driving, which Kleinschmidt said was too restrictive.

He himself voted against a complete ban, electing for a hands free option to be allowed while driving.

“I was on the wrong side of that vote and I think there are others on the council who wonder whether banning hands free is appropriate. I predict it will be revisited in the short term,”  he said.

Chapel Hill was the first town in the country to enact a complete ban on the use of cell phones while driving. The town originally adopted the cell phone ban in March 2012.

“But the good news is that for folks that it is a secondary offense—which means people will not get pulled over for driving while talking on the phone,” he explained.

Kleinschmidt says the cell phone ban and towing regulations are almost certain to go into affect by June 24. Court procedure is to issue a mandate 20 days after a ruling in a case, at which point the court’s ruling then becomes law. He says permitting the hands-free option is now up to the council and residents of Chapel Hill.


CH Towing Regulations & Ban On Cell Phone Use While Driving Restored

CHAPEL HILL – The state Court of Appeals Tuesday reversed a lower court ruling that struck down Chapel Hill’s ordinances on regulating towing companies and banning the use of cell phones while driving.

And Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt says this is step towards local governments maintaining their authority.

“The real victory here is the towns and cities across North Carolina that have done a good job at providing reasonable regulations for towing in private lots,” Kleinschmidt said.

He says the cell phone ban and towing regulations are almost certain to go into affect by June 24. Court procedure is to issue a mandate 20 days after a ruling in a case, at which point the court’s ruling then becomes law.

The town originally adopted the cell phone ban in March 2012, but the ordinance never took effect because George King, operator of George’s Towing, challenged the Town Council.

Last August, Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson issued a sweeping ruling, striking down both the towing regulations and the cell phone ban.

“The decision comes a time when our general assembly, along with this decision that came from the Superior Court, has been really whittling away at the town’s ability to provide for its citizens,” Kleinschmidt said.

The towing ordinance was proposed in response to complaints about predatory towing in downtown Chapel Hill. Residents and visitors alike complained that in many lots, there weren’t enough clear signs indicating where it was and wasn’t acceptable to park—and that when they were towed, they were forced to find transportation to a distant lot, nowhere near an ATM, to find that the operators would only release their cars if they paid in cash.

“Whether they should have parked where they parked or not parked there should be room for reasonable regulations of that practice,” he said

But Kleinschmidt says the town council will likely revisit the cell phone ban in the near future as some members says it’s too restrictive. He himself voted against a complete ban, electing for a hands free option to be allowed while driving.



The Luxury of Disagreement

I have written derisively of using town dollars to defend a hands-free cell phone ban (when the town was even on notice it wouldn’t hold up in court).  The notion that it can be handled by attorneys already paid by the town made no difference to me because their salaries are still town dollars (tax $ = my $) and I have to believe there are other important issues awaiting legal attention on my dime.  

Well, it seems we may just be approaching one of those.  And it’s just a small thing… I can’t remember what it’s called.  What a minute…. something free…. no… “Free something…….  I’ve got it:  Free Speech.  

It’s quite likely you’re reading this thinking that’s a great use of tax dollars:  defending free speech.  Well, you may be disappointed to find out Chapel Hill is on the receiving end of a reminder about First Amendment rights.  The reminder comes from the American Civil Liberties Union and is about some controversial bus advertisements.

The ads were about U.S. military aid to Israel. As a recovering journalist, I can tell you there are two topics in the U.S. that if you cover them in any way, every single person reading/listening/watching will assume you’re biased.  One of them is Israel.*  And that assumption of bias occurs when you’ve tried to be as absolutely evenhanded as possible.  In the case of the bus ads, there is a definite point of view.  The sponsoring church wants to end U.S. military aid to Israel.  So, a lightning rod subject with a definite point of view on the far end of one of the many spectrums in this multi-layered debate.  No question, these ads were going to stir up a reaction.

The ads came down due to a technicality in the small print.  If that sounds redundant, this is one of the few times I’ll defend my writing:  It was a technical requirement that certain information be printed on the ad (all ads) that wasn’t included on these.  

Despite the respite for the town in having a real reason to duck the controversy, it rages on.  

While passionate people are debating the importance of Israel and the U.S. role in the region, I feel I’m watching a magician impeccably trained in the art of misdirection. There is plenty to debate about all aspects of the U.S. and every corner of the Middle East but it is our right to do so that is really in question here.  

The right to express an opinion is why we’re all (I hope) voting in a few weeks and savoring the ability to do so.  The right to disagree with an ad on a bus?  That’s an absolute luxury folks, and one we should be embracing, not curtailing. 

Disagree with me?  Celebrate your right to do so by leaving a comment below, and remember, courtesy and civility are adequate vehicles for all opinions- even very strong ones!  Prefer to address me directly?  Write to me at Donnabeth@Chapelboro.com

*The other, I’m sure you’ve guessed, is abortion. 

Follow-up Questions: Towing, Teachers, & Opportunity Cost

Word that Chapel Hill is going to continue the legal fight and appeal a judge’s ruling against a planned cell phone ban (including hands-free use) and a towing ordinance prompts a few questions:

First of all, I keep hearing and reading that downtown businesses must use towing companies and aggressive towing tactics in order to maintain spaces for their patrons.  If this is the reason, why does towing persist after the business has closed?  Why not resume it 30 minutes prior to opening?  Again, I ask, what’s in it for the businesses?  They not only allow it; they encourage it.  

Now to the appeal of the cell phone ban.  A recent Chapelboro news story quotes Chapel Hill Town Council member Penny Rich as saying town attorney Ralph Karpinos told the council the legal battle won’t incur any additional cost (emphasis mine) as it will all be taken care of by in-house attorneys.  I had written about the costs of pursuing this ban under my “Savvy Spender” banner, saying I believe the town has better things on which to spend my money. That was based on a pre-vote opinion from the N.C. Attorney General that the town would not prevail in court.  

I was no academic star in my required economics courses but I do remember the concept of opportunity cost.  Forgive my inability to convey this elegantly but as I understand it, opportunity cost is what one gives up when one chooses an alternative course of action.  So while the town may not incur any additional cost by using outside counsel, there clearly is some sort of cost in what else town attorneys won’t be doing.  In other words, it’s highly unlikely they’d be sitting around doing nothing if they were not tasked with pursuing this so, as a taxpayer, I’d love to know what’s not getting done instead?  That’s my cost.

Finally the start of school brings us to what is apparently the denouement in the saga of the involuntarily transferred teachers Anne Thompson and Bert Wartski.   They fought all the way to the courthouse and lost and are now leaving their longtime base at Chapel Hill High School.  I ask again the question I raised weeks ago:  In the case of Anne Thompson,  who is planning to retire after this coming school year and who just suffered the loss of her husband, why is there no mercy, no leniency, no ability to stand down?  

My exclusion of Mr. Wartski is due only to the more lamentable circumstances of Mrs. Thompson.  Shouldn’t Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools demonstrate a kindness that leadership must want to see from its students?   What a great way to set an example that the bigger kid doesn’t always have to win. 

If you can answer any of these questions, write to me at Donnabeth@Chapelboro.com


Cell Phones, Towing, & Teachers

Back in April I wrote about the Chapel Hill Town Council (CHTC) banning both handheld and hands-free cell phone use by drivers (with limited exceptions).  

The point of my column then was not to root for distracted driving; it was to point out the pointless use of public (staff) time and money in defending this law, when the CHTC had an opinion from the North Carolina Attorney General’s office that it may be unenforceable.  Yes, the opinion said “may”.  It didn’t say “not”.  But with the scales of justice tipped against you and lots of other priorities facing the town, I questioned the decision.  

Turns out both the Attorney General’s office and I were right.  Don’t you just love how I managed to puff myself up there?  Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson’s reason was in line with the AG’s office opinion: the town can’t enact laws where state law is comprehensive.  So, given that ruling, is this the finale of this folly?  Or should I prepare to stop listening to WCHL in the morning because that Ron Stutts fellow can be awfully distracting.  

In that same ruling Judge Hudson struck down the town’s law regulating towing.  His reasoning there was that it violates the state constitution by regulating trade.  

In Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt’s response (at bottom of this link) to the double loss in court, he spoke of only one: the towing ordinance.  I’m hoping his targeted response indicates his view of the town’s future priorities.

As to the towing regulations, we rarely hear from the businesses that contract with the towing companies.  Clearly the property owners must agree to allow cameras affixed so the towing companies can pounce the minute someone places a toe off property.  Do the property owners get a piece of the fee car owners must pay?  That would explain why they believe it’s in their businesses’ best interests to allow such practices.  I wonder if we polled those who’ve had their car towed from a downtown business if we’d find many of them had eagerly returned to spend money downtown, and more pointedly, to the business from which their car was towed.  Perhaps the business owners who encourage, condone and contract with towing companies are cutting off their proverbial noses?  Unless of course they are making money from the towing.  

Let me know what you think of my many opinions by writing to me at Donnabeth@Chapelboro.com

p.s.  I continue to receive an extraordinary amount of email regarding my previous columns (one and two) on the involuntary transfer of Chapel Hill High School teachers Anne Thompson and Bert Wartski.  Among the correspondents, Mr. Wartski, who has offered to waive his confidentiality rights with regard to the Chapel Hill Carrboro City School Board’s review and subsequent denial of his appeal of the transfer.  So, can we learn the whole story now?  


Not-so-Savvy Spending

The Chapel Hill Town Council (CHTC) has banned the use of all types of cell phones by drivers: both the handheld and the hands-free as of June 1.  If you’re a regular Chapelboro reader, you probably know this.  What you might not realize is what it may cost you and I’m not talking about the $25 fine.  

Here’s the scoop:  this ban will end up in court and the town will have to pay to defend it and council members knew that and decided to spend our tax dollars (and/or staff time- which we also fund) doing so.  

I keep hearing about priority-based budgeting, that we’ll have to make tough choices about what to fund, that our already high taxes will have to go up….  and now, this little expected expenditure.  Really people?  This is your priority?  

In a terrifically thorough discussion of the likely court arguments, WCHL News Director Aaron Keck and Legal Analyst Hampton Dellinger explain why this ban may be unenforceable.  There’s even an opinion from the North Carolina Attorney General’s office saying so and guess what?  That opinion was available to the CHTC before members voted. 

I too have seen drivers oblivious to all else but their phones, weaving and dawdling their way through traffic.  Somehow I know they’re on the phone because they are using one of their hands to hold the device instead of the steering wheel.  “Both hands on the wheel,” my driver’s ed. teacher told me.  

So if hands-free devices are also being banned, I bet the phone lines are jammed at Performance Automall to make appointments to remove car radios (perish the thought!).  Also, the Chapel Hill Town Council must be moving some priority budgeting over to childcare because I certainly can’t be talking to my child in the backseat; that’s a hands-free conversation too.  Also, inventors must be furiously working on patented devices to detect chewing gum and Chapstick that may also be illegal to use inside my vehicle.  

I’m not advocating distracted, unsafe driving; I’m saying that each driver is licensed and is required to pay attention.  Once we get beyond the rule of both hands on the wheel, we’d have to start regulating daydreams, laughter, rubbernecking and dozens of other hands-free distractions that happen to all of us at some point when we’re driving.  While I think this is impossible, as is the upcoming ban, I think the bigger problem is a question of those darn priorities.  

I submit that all elected officials need to look at the biggest possible picture when making decisions and voting on laws, plans, bans, etc.  This ban reeks of being voted on in the abstract, in a world where taxes and budgets and residents in need are on the periphery.  It’s nice to take a utopian stand but only when we live in Utopia.  

Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below or write to me at Donnabeth@Chapelboro.com.