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Healdsburg City Council deadlocks on cyclist, pedestrian protection ordinance

A proposed ordinance that defines bicyclists as "vulnerable users" and makes it easier for them to sue motorists that harass or assault them failed to gain support Monday from a deadlocked Healdsburg City Council.

The four council members present were divided 2-2 on the need for an ordinance, which has been urged by the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition in response to a number of high-profile incidents involving cyclists and pedestrians hurt or killed in Sonoma County.

But skeptics said the Vulnerable User ordinance goes too far in favor of cyclists, for which it is primarily designed.

"It sets up a special class," said Councilman Gary Plass, who voted to reject it along with Councilman Shaun McCaffery.

"I acknowledge a problem. I don't think this ordinance will cure it. It's all about education and people learning to co-exist,"" Plass said

Councilman Tom Chambers, who sponsored the ordinance, said "it makes a clear commitment to supporting pedestrians and cyclists. There doesn't seem much of a downside."

And he said there could potentially be a lot of economic gain, reinforcing the city's image as a bicycling Mecca, drawing two-wheel enthusiasts from far and wide. Councilman Jim Wood also was willing to support an ordinance with some modifications, such as dropping a provision allowing cyclists to collect triple damages if they prevail in a lawsuit against someone who harasses them.

Even though the ordinance failed to gain sufficient support, it isn't dead in Healdsburg. Council members on a 3-1 vote, Plass dissenting, agreed to bring it back for discussion when the full five-member council is present, for a definitive vote. Mayor Susan Jones was absent Monday.

The Bicycle Coalition is in the midst of the campaign to get Sonoma County and its cities county to adopt an ordinance, similar to laws passed in Los Angeles, Berkeley, Sunnyvale and Washington D.C. It makes it easier for a cyclist or pedestrian to bring a lawsuit and collect damages if they are harassed or assaulted. Advocates say it will act as a deterrent and make it safer for the so-called vulnerable users.

Sebastopol and the County of Sonoma passed versions of the new law. Santa Rosa City Council members expressed support for an ordinance, but have not yet taken formal action.

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