NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – One man can make a difference. His name is Charlie Renda.
When the City Council introduced a new law to ban bicycles from all city sidewalks in September, cyclists including Mr. Renda spoke out against the measure. The Council tabled the law, and the city’s administration responded with a new proposal that was much more comprehensive, but still included the same steep penalties for violators.
The revised ordinance exempts children under 12 from the sidewalk cycling ban, affirms cyclists’ right-of-way in certain situations, and requires motorists to give at least three feet of space when passing a cyclist. Many felt that the compromise was the best cyclists could hope for, and no one showed up to protest or comment on the revised law last night. Except for Charlie Renda.
Renda, a retired attorney and lifelong city resident who attends nearly every Council meeting, said the steep fines for violating the ordinance were in contradiction with the legal doctrine of “ultra vires,” which says that municipalities cannot impose laws that are stricter than the state’s.
“I don’t think you have the authority to raise the fines beyond the state statute,” he told the Council during last night’s public hearing on the ordinance.
Violators of any part of the bicycle law would face a minimum fine of $50. Second-time offenders would have to pay at least $100, and third or subsequent offenses would result in a minimum $500 fine. The maximum fine for violating the ordinance is $2,250.
Renda said the fines were “draconian” and out of step with penalties for violating state laws.
“For example, careless driving: the maximum fine is like $200. Reckless driving: the maximum fine is like $200. A vehicle riding on the sidewalk: the maximum fine is like $50. So, you’re better off riding a car on the sidewalk than you are riding a bicycle on the sidewalk, because you can get up to $2,250 fine for riding a bike,” he said.
City Attorney Bill Hamilton, who often gives more than just legal advice to the Council, practically begged them to adopt the law anyway.
“Why don’t you adopt it and then take a look longer-term? See how things go and then you can go back and amend it, starting in January,” he interjected after Council President Robert Recine suggested tabling the vote.
But, Renda’s arguments were persuasive enough to win over the City Council.
“I’m comfortable with the ordinance as written, except for the fee structure,” Recine said, shortly before the body unanimously voted to table the law.
Renda also criticized the Council for not referring the law to the city’s Traffic Commission, and said that, if adopted, it could invite prejudicial or selective enforcement: “Most of the people you see riding on the sidewalks in the City of New Brunswick are students, seniors, or Hispanic.”
Renda continued, “How many people are going to be, you know, given a wink and a nod as they drive by on a bicycle when the sidewalk’s not crowded and how many people are going to be stopped?… It’s not going to be enforced equally across the board. I don’t see how it could be.”
The Council will once again address the issue at their January 18 meeting, at 6:30pm.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.