COLUMBIA — Keeping track of where the city stands on protecting bicyclists from harassment lately has been about as difficult as riding a bike across Interstate 70, but the Columbia City Council tried to remedy the situation on Monday night.
The council on Monday night reaffirmed its commitment to an ordinance it passed on June 15 that makes harassing bicyclists a misdemeanor. In doing so, it rejected on a 4-2 vote a proposal by Fourth Ward Councilman Jerry Wade to suspend the ordinance for six months to allow the community to determine whether there were better alternatives. Only Second Ward Councilman Jason Thornhill sided with Wade.
The ordinance passed in June makes it a Class A misdemeanor to throw anything at bicyclists, to threaten or knowingly endanger them or to deliberately frighten or disturb them. Violators can be fined $1,000 and/or be sentenced to a year in jail.
In a separate vote earlier in the meeting, the council decided to table for two months an amendment to the ordinance that would have added protection for pedestrians and wheelchair users. The amendment had the overwhelming support of those who spoke to the council. Council members, however, felt the issue would be better addressed after a task force that will be appointed to study the relationships among motorists, bicyclists and others has done its work.
Several people who spoke in favor of the amendment also opposed a repeal of the initial ordinance, which Wade had argued in hindsight was passed too quickly and without adequate public input.
Supporters of suspending the ordinance have argued that the ordinance codifies something that already exists and that this is not an issue of motorists versus cyclists. But there were few voices in support of the suspension on Monday night.
Those who opposed a suspension of the ordinance said that it would send the wrong message and that the new law is effective in countering cyclist harassment.
Others said education would be the key to bridging the gap between communities.
“I see the controversy fed not by information, but by misinformation,” Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala said.
Even after the public hearing, Wade argued the suspension was a good idea, given the feedback he had received from constituents who feared they’d be ticketed or prosecuted if they inadvertently threatened a bicyclist.
"There is also the perception that this ordinance symbolizes that they will be held responsible even if they’re obeying traffic laws,” Wade said.
Later in the meeting, the council also rejected on a 4-2 vote the idea of spending $9,500 to promote a community dialogue on the relationship between motorists and bicyclists. Only Wade and Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser voted in favor. Thornhill said the need was rendered moot by the council’s decision not to suspend the harassment ordinance.
Although the task force has time to find ways to amend the ordinance, Skala said not suspending the ordinance allows for the basic need for protection.
"It's a safety matter, and safety doesn't wait," Skala said.