Cyclists, walkers, joggers and skate boarders in the city of Santa Rosa now have a clear path in civil court to sue a person who assaults or harasses them.
The Santa Rosa City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to adopt a "vulnerable user protection" ordinance aimed at deterring dangerous and harassing behavior.
Councilwoman Erin Carlstrom said the ordinance emphasizes that Santa Rosa is a safe place for bikers and walkers "while empowering residents to defend their own rights — I'm thrilled."
The city joined Sebastopol and Sonoma County, which also adopted measures that establish a way for people defined as "vulnerable users" to seek civil court damages against a driver, cyclist, pedestrian or anyone who harasses or assaults them.
Council members in Healdsburg and Windsor rejected similar measures.
Gary Helfrich, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, said that it was important for Santa Rosa to adopt the ordinance because about half of the harassment complaints the group receives originate in the city.
"This ordinance goes a great length toward sending a message," Helfrich said.
The bicycle coalition was the main group behind the proposal, which was also supported by the Santa Rosa Police Department.
In addition to Helfrich, two people spoke in support of the ordinance during the public comment period. No one spoke against it.
"Bicyclists and pedestrians, we are indeed vulnerable," Barbara Moulton, 65, of Santa Rosa said. "The vast majority of motorists are courteous, but there is a small, dangerous minority that seem to consider us fair game."
Critics of the ordinance, including Healdsburg and Windsor city leaders, have said that laws already exist that protect walkers and cyclists. They also questioned whether an ordinance could lead to frivolous lawsuits.
Carlstrom, an attorney, said she "wholeheartedly disagreed" with those criticisms during an interview after Tuesday's hearing.
The burden of proof for a criminal case is too high for the majority of harassment cases, she said.
The Santa Rosa ordinance, like Sebastopol's, paves the way for a prevailing party to seek triple monetary damages. Carlstrom said that the possibility of facing triple damages gives a prevailing party needed clout, and she offered an example of a motorist intentionally swerving into a cyclist and scuffing the bike. While the damage may be minimal, the action was truly dangerous.
"It encourages people to protect their rights and sends a message that people shouldn't engage in dangerous behavior," Carlstrom said.
Laws guiding county government prevented the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors from including that provision. The county's ordinance leaves that up to a court's discretion.
The Santa Rosa council passed the ordinance on the same day that a judge sentenced an 82-year-old Santa Rosa driver who chased and then rammed a cyclist to spend five years in a secure facility that specializes in treating dementia.
You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or email@example.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.