By Adam Hocking
MARSHFIELD — On Tuesday night the Marshfield Common Council reinstated the cellphone ban on drivers two months after voting to suspend enforcement of the ban. Enforcement of the cellphone ban is effective immediately. The ban was initially suspended amid concerns that the city’s cell phone ordinance did not fall in line with state law.
The specific city ordinance in questions states, “No person shall operate a motor vehicle on any street or highway while engaging in any conduct defined as the ‘use’ of a mobile telephone unless the operator maintains both hands on the applicable steering device.” Use in the ordinance is defined as dialing, answering, talking, listening, texting, or “otherwise manipulating the controls of a mobile phone.”
Exceptions to the cell phone ban include using a cellphone while driving to contact public safety personnel, using a cellphone while parked, or using a hands-free device where hands can be kept on the steering wheel.
The council originally suspended the cellphone ordinance in March after Marshfield Police Chief Rick Gramza became aware of a situation involving Waupaca County and the Department of Transportation (DOT). Waupaca County wanted to post signs on state highways informing drivers of its own cellphone ban, but the DOT said the county did not have the authority to do so and that the ordinance “clearly prohibits allowed uses under state statute.”
Marshfield’s ordinance prohibits all cellphone use while driving unless it is hands-free while state law allows for the use of a cellphone for verbal communication without the hands-free requirement. State law does ban all drivers from texting while driving.
In March Gramza said, “What state statute says is that in this area of the law … you are not able to be more strict than what state law prohibits.”
City Attorney Harold Wolfgram said that the risk of enforcing the ordinance is that it could lead to a legal challenge.
“What you risk essentially by going down this path — right or wrong — is just simply that somebody would challenge it, and then we’d have to have a fight over whether or not the ordinance is valid and whether or not it would be upheld and then ultimately whether or not there was some type of violation of somebody’s personal rights because we were trying to enforce it,” Wolfgram said.
While the conflict between state law and local cellphone ordinances has not been resolved, the majority of the council voted to reinstate the ban, and council members Tom Buttke and Rebecca Spiros said they are more concerned with maintaining a safe driving environment than they are with potential legal challenges the ordinance could face.
“I go to pick up my granddaughters during the week, and you go to the school zone, and you see some of the people going with cellphones. That scares me. I will be no part of this, folks. If you’re worried about getting challenged over a kid getting hurt or killed or an adult, you’re going about it wrong,” Buttke said.
“I think it’s a safety thing too,” Spiros said. “If you don’t stick with this, that this is something you shouldn’t be doing because you’re afraid that someone may challenge this, I just think it’s foolish. I think it’s absolutely foolish.”
Council members Alanna Feddick, Peter Hendler, and Ed Wagner were opposed to reinstating the ban.
“I continue to be against enforcement of this. I think it’s just prone to challenge and especially since we’re making a record of it. I have no doubt that people are taking watch of this and will certainly challenge it,” Feddick said.
Wagner advocated for keeping the cellphone ban suspended until things could become more clear between state and local law.