Hilliard City Council on Oct. 28 approved new legislation concerning fire lanes, but it didn't come easy and, according to police Chief Doug Francis, will not achieve the intended result regarding "predicate offenses."
City Council members proposed a battery of amendments to the ordinance -- some failing, some passing -- before arriving at a final amended version that was approved unanimously.
Several provisions of the ordinance were at issue, including whether police should be able to cite private-property owners where the blocking of fire lanes occurs, and whether traffic violations of another nature should make a subsequent fire-lane violation a misdemeanor of a higher degree.
Debate on the issue began during the Public Safety and Legal Affairs Committee that preceded the City Council meeting and continued after the ordinance was moved from the committee to the full council.
"I think this is a dreamt-up concern with no basis in reality," Councilman Nathan Painter said, as debate lingered on Councilman Albert Iosue's concern that police potentially could arbitrarily or excessively cite a private-property owner for another person violating parking restrictions in fire lanes.
Painter and Councilman Joe Erb said police should be afforded the discretion of issuing citations to private-property owners if evidence indicated the owner allowed or encouraged violations.
To assuage Iosue's concerns, City Council members first amended the ordinance to add the word knowingly to the legislation: "No owner or operator of private property shall knowingly permit the standing or parking of a vehicle (in an area identified as a fire lane)."
Council members unanimously approved the amendment, but the debate continued on other issues.
Blocking a fire lane is a minor misdemeanor, but the legislation as originally proposed allowed police to make the violation a fourth-degree misdemeanor if a motorist had been convicted of any moving violation, such as speeding, in the past 12 months.
Such former violations are known as "predicate offenses" when used to make new charges of a higher level.
Motorists with two or more traffic violations in the past 12 months could be charged with a third-degree misdemeanor for a fire-lane violation.
City Council President Brett Sciotto asked for an amendment that would declare any and all parking violations, but excluding moving violations, as a "predicate offense."
That motion failed 4-3. Sciotto, Vice President Kelly McGivern and Jim Ashenhurst voted in favor of the measure; Tom Baker, Erb, Iosue and Painter opposed it.
Next, Iosue made a motion for only previous fire-lane violations to be a predicate offense. That measure passed 4-3. Ashenhurst, Iosue, McGivern and Sciotto and voted in favor of the amendment; Baker, Erb and Painter opposed it.
Iosue reiterated that motorists should be culpable only for repeat violations of the same offense; those who supported making all parking violations or even moving violations predicate offenses agreed it indicated a possible lack of general regard for parking restrictions, and that police should be able to apply more-severe penalties if deemed appropriate.
Lastly, Iosue made a motion to amend the ordinance to delay the effective date of the ordinance until Jan. 1, 2014, giving the public as much notice as possible. The measure passed 6-1, with Erb dissenting.
"People are aware," said Erb, alluding to media coverage and the more than 600 warnings Francis said police recently had issued to illegally parked cars at various schools.
The blocking of fire lanes at schools was the impetus for the legislation, but police supported the application to other problematic places, such as pizzerias where delivery drivers sometimes block lanes.
Following the vote, Francis said, despite the naming of only fire-lane violations as a predicate offense, police retain the discretion to apply other violations as predicate offenses because another section of code allows it.
Hilliard's "prohibited-parking ordinance" outlines 19 parking offenses and is independent from the fire-lane ordinance, Francis said.
Ohio law allows police to use parking offenses as predicate offenses, a fact Erb reiterated.
"We're getting in the weeds. I want to stay with the state code," Erb said as discussion continued about the nature of predicate offenses.
Francis said police will be able to use discretion as they desire, but City Council's action was ultimately unnecessary and created two sections of code for the same purpose.
The new legislation gives police the authority to tow vehicles from fire lanes and cite private-property owners when circumstances call for it, enforcement tactics not previously available.
"I don't agree with the final version, but it's something we can live and work with," Tim Roberts, a retired firefighter and Norwich Township trustee, told council members.