City council considers legalizing golf carts on city streets despite attorney’s advice

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Carmel’s city attorney has advised the Carmel City Council that a proposed ordinance to regulate golf carts on city streets could be struck down by courts.

But some city councilors would like to proceed because they said it’s the right thing to do for Carmel residents.

City councilor Kevin “Woody” Rider said Carmel residents are already using golf carts on roads, even if they aren’t supposed to  under city law. and so the best thing to do is find a safe way to make it legal.

“We can legalize things and talk about the legal mumbo jumbo forever, but it’s a fact of life the community wants it,” Rider said at the council’s finance committee meeting Aug. 15.

For more than a year, the council has discussed ways to make golf carts legal on city roads. Currently, it is prohibited, and most councilors said they would like to add safety requirements if they legalize the practice. Requirements would include seat belts, headlights, a valid driver’s license and more. But City Attorney Ashley Ulbricht said state law prohibits municipalities from requiring such safety measures, such as modifications to the golf cart or having a driver’s license. As a result, she said if someone were to be given a ticket under the  proposed city law, the person could sue the City of Carmel by saying the city ordinance is illegal because it conflicts with state law.

Ulbricht cited a recent lawsuit filed by Jason Maraman, who sued the city to challenge his 2014 speeding ticket. He claimed Carmel was giving a local ticket based on state law, which he felt was not allowed, and an appeals court agreed. The Indiana Supreme Court refused to hear the case, so Carmel’s law was thrown out. Maraman tried suing for damages in federal court, but Carmel won that case.

Corporate counsel Doug Haney said that one case has cost the City of Carmel tens of thousands of dollars and represents about a sixth of his legal budget for the entire year.

“If we do pass an ordinance that puts us in legal jeopardy, that’s not good for any of us,” councilor Ron Carter said.

Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard said he agrees with the city attorney’s legal advice, as does city councilor Jeff Worrell.

“I think it sets a bad precedent to pass a law that we know could be struck down,” Worrell said. “I would prefer that we work with the Indiana State Legislature to get their law changed first.”

But others on the council don’t want to wait. Rider said Carmel’s law might encourage the legislature to clarify the law.

“If I’m practicing a little civil disobedience, I’m OK with it,” Rider said.

City councilor Tony Green, who represents an area that includes the Village of West Clay , where the issue resonates, said something needs to be done. He said other communities, such as Westfield, already have legalized golf cart usage on roads.

“We’re not creating a new hybrid of something,” he said. “Others do it.”

City Council President Sue Finkam said she doesn’t want to see golf carts out of residential neighborhoods. She said if they can be confined geographically to neighborhoods and there are safety requirements, she would vote for the law.

It was suggested in the finance committee meeting that golf carts be allowed in certain geographic boundaries if the neighborhood petitions the city council to legalize them there.

But Carter said safety requirements would not be enforced. He said he feared a “crap ordinance” would be created just to make constituents happy.

The Carmel City Council listened to research presented by Jeff Carter, a Carmel resident and retired head of Indiana’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. He did not recommend legalizing golf carts on roads because of safety concerns.

“I can’t imagine taking a golf cart through some of our roundabouts at certain speeds,” he said.

Worrell has the same safety concerns.

“I’m thinking of not just the safety of someone using a golf cart, but the safety of the motorists driving cars in the area,” he said. “That’s why I want headlights, turn signals, driver’s license and other requirements.”

Although nothing has been decided, the council has considered some of the following rules:

  • Golf cart drivers must get a permit from the chief of the Carmel Police Dept. and could be subject to a fine without one.
  • Golf carts can’t be operated on any public roadway with a speed limit greater than 35 mph. Golf carts are only allowed to cross roads with speed limits higher than that at crossings that have a stop sign or traffic control signal.
  • Golf cart drivers must have a valid driver’s license to be on public roadways.
  • Golf carts can only be operated from sunrise to sundown, unless the cart has headlights, taillights, brake lights, seatbelts, turn signals and a rearview mirror.
  • Golf carts cannot be operated on any city sidewalk or multi-use path.
  • The driver and all passengers must wear a seat belt when the vehicle is in operation. One seat belt must be available per occupant.

Rider said it’s unlikely the golf cart ordinance will be voted on at the next council meeting Aug. 21. Because the first meeting in September is canceled because of Labor Day, that means the golf cart ordinance could be voted on as early as Sept. 18.

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