Promising to show moped dealers no mercy this summer, Oak Bluffs selectmen have begun to toughen up moped bylaws, adding new language that will increase licensing fees, set higher penalties for violations and establish a minimum height limit for child passengers.
"I will extend moped dealers no courtesy," said selectman Richard Combra.
But while selectmen draft new laws that could shorten the leash on the town's eight moped dealers, they have spent the last several weeks giving the town's biggest moped dealer all kinds of courtesies - including a full liquor license and sewer permit for a restaurant that's not even built yet.
That dealer is Mark Wallace, co-owner of Jim's Package Store and Cottage City Texaco. Selectmen learned this week that Mr. Wallace's moped business, Ride On Mopeds, never even had a license to operate last year. Mr. Wallace controls over one-third of the 539 mopeds for rent in Oak Bluffs.
Ever since last summer's tragic moped accidents left one woman dead and another man brain-damaged, Oak Bluffs selectmen have been vowing to take action to improve moped safety. While they are pushing to bring new bylaws before voters at a June special town meeting, they have also warmed up to another way to reduce mopeds in town - trading moped licenses for other kinds of desirable town permits.
Last winter, Mr. Wallace offered to close down another moped operation he controls - Porthole Mopeds - in exchange for selectmen granting him a seasonal liquor license and a wastewater permit for a new restaurant he wants to open this summer on the harbor. Selectmen voted 4-0 with one abstention to grant him the alcohol license and then voted the same way to affirm the wastewater committee's approval for added sewer flow.
But the abstaining selectman, Roger Wey, has continually questioned the merit of the deal, arguing that Porthole Mopeds lacked a valid license last year and could be subject to closure if selectmen enforced their own bylaw which states that "licenses not used during one year's time shall be null and void."
But while selectmen spent much of this week's meeting sharpening the teeth of the moped bylaws, they have been reluctant to try shutting down moped shops which have operated without valid licenses, saying they need input from town counsel on whether they really possess that power.
Thus far, town counsel Ron Rappaport has been unable to give selectmen any direction. Why? He's still waiting on documents he requested on March 13 from Mr. Wallace and Colin Young, another moped dealer who has operated Porthole Mopeds for the last two years. Mr. Wallace's mother, Anne Wallace, is the landlord for the Porthole Moped shop at 12 Circuit avenue extension.
Mr. Wallace declined to comment when reached yesterday by the Gazette.
Meanwhile, selectman Todd Rebello this week told his board that based on conversations with Mr. Rappaport, the town moped bylaws don't give selectmen the right to close down a business for failure to obtain a license.
"The licensing fees were not paid for, but they continued to operate," said Mr. Rebello. "They didn't abandon their license."
Despite Mr. Rebello's assertion, fellow selectmen expressed shock at the fact that the town let three dealers stay open last year even when they had no license.
"I am embarrassed and flabbergasted that [these] businesses remained open with no license," said Mr. Combra. "I suggest we confiscate the mopeds. . . . We would never allow any other business to operate without a license."
"If they don't have a license on the wall signed by us," said selectman Ken Rusczyk, "they should be shut down."
But in spite of the stern words, the board gave no indication it would scuttle the deals made with Mr. Wallace or force the issue of closing down either of Mr. Young's two dealerships. Instead, selectmen proceeded to augment and edit the exisiting moped bylaws.
Mr. Rebello, who has led the efforts to revamp the bylaws, suggested raising licensing fees from a flat $500 rate to a base fee of $500 plus $20 per moped. That would increase potential revenue from $4,000 to just over $14,000 and the extra could go toward enforcement and the printing of numbered decals that selectmen want to see on every moped rented in town.
Beefed-up bylaws could also address some safety issues, but it was Mr. Combra who shared his frustration that selectmen could do little to make any improvements in training.
While current bylaws require a 25-by-50-foot training track, none of the dealers satisfy that requirement because they are crunched into the center of town where there is no such room for a track. Dealers are supposed to seek waivers from selectmen and propose alternative training programs, but no such waivers or training alternatives are on record in town hall.
"The most important part of renting a moped is the amount of training they receive," said Mr. Combra. "What are we doing about this? Just a push down the street is sufficient?"
Selectmen dropped the issue of training and focused on smaller safety measures, promising better enforcement of the footwear bylaw and proposing to add a height requirement of four feet eight inches, for any child passengers. Current bylaws forbid anyone under the age of 10 to ride on a moped, but Mr. Rebello said a minimum height limit would address the safety issue while eliminating the temptation for people to lie about a child's age.
Current bylaws also forbid renting mopeds to people who are wearing sandals or flip-flops, but no one has ever enforced that section of the code. Selectmen called for better enforcement and suggested that either the dealer or the rider be cited for violations.
Selectman Michael Dutton suggested raising fines from $50 to $250 for the first offense. A second offense, he said, should warrant a fine of $500 and a third offense should be cause for revocation of a license. Selectmen could also suspend licenses for two or three weeks at a time.
"How many times do you allow them to break the rules?" said Mr. Dutton.
Selectmen's comments and discussion were given urgency by the season's first moped accident on April 12 in Chilmark, sending a Mashpee woman to Massachusetts General Hospital, where she stayed for five days after undergoing surgery to repair a collapsed lung and several fractured ribs.
"Enough is enough," said Mr. Combra. "We're headed down the same road."