STARKVILLE — Mayor Lynn Spruill strolled into the municipal courtroom at City Hall on Friday afternoon toward her customary place at the center of the board table, speaking cordially to the gathering audience as she went.
Even if her countenance bore signs of “just another day at the office,” her garb — a maroon Mississippi State windbreaker draped over a T-shirt emblazoned with “OMAHA” — showed clearly there was some place she’d rather be.
Spruill’s trip to watch the Bulldogs baseball team play in the College World Series was delayed a day, however, as she instead presided over a special-call meeting where aldermen voted 5-1 to override her veto and reassert a ban on commercial scooter services in the city limits. The ban forces the scooter sharing company Bird to immediately cease operating its local electric fleet due to safety concerns and numerous complaints of rider misuse.
“We’re not trying to take away something that is pleasurable, and I know there are some people who use (the scooters) for transportation,” said Ward 5 Alderman Hamp Beatty, who along with Ward 3’s David Little called Friday’s meeting to override the veto. “For me, this is 100 percent a safety issue. … We would be derelict if we didn’t do something to abate the potential for serious injury or tragedy.”
Bird delivered its rentable scooters in March after obtaining a privilege license from the city to operate. Shortly after, city officials began receiving complaints of users riding them on Highway 12, on sidewalks, without helmets and under the influence of alcohol, as well as scooters being haphazardly left in roadways, sidewalks and parking lots.
The board voted 4-3 on June 15 to ban the scooters, with Ward 1’s Ben Carver and Vice Mayor Roy A. Perkins of Ward 6 joining Little and Beatty in the decision.
Ward 7’s Henry Vaughn, at first opposed to the ban, switched his June 15 vote on Friday, giving the board the minimum five votes needed to overturn the veto Spruill issued Tuesday.
Vaughn said Friday he supports Bird but changed his vote because the city needs more front-end due diligence. Spruill, along with several aldermen, noted the city has no laws regulating scooter use — from where and how they can be ridden to whether helmets are required or where they can be parked — meaning even if police see a rider do something seemingly improper, enforcement options are limited.
“What has (taken) so long to get to this point?” Vaughn asked at the board table. “We should have already had the rules and regulations here. I will vote to override this veto until we have (those) rules and regulations.”
Spruill said those are forthcoming, announcing she plans to present a memorandum of understanding between Bird and the city, along with a draft ordinance codifying scooter use, to the new board July 6. That board will have two new members, with Jeffrey Rupp replacing Little in Ward 3 and Mike Brooks replacing Jason Walker — who on June 15 voted against banning scooters — in Ward 4.
Spruill said she supports the scooters as a form of recreation and needed alternative transportation.
“I prefer to think of this as a hiatus, or a suspension, of scooter service, rather than a ban,” Spruill told The Dispatch after the meeting. “There is a path forward. … Bird has been working with our concerns as we’ve presented them, and my whole point is to give them a chance. A ban doesn’t do that.”
Bringing the scooters back, even with coded parameters, may be an uphill climb.
Though Little is leaving the board July 1, he laid out his case Friday for maintaining the ban in his motion to override Spruill’s veto. At its crux, he cited MSU’s ban of commercial scooter services operating on campus as a model to follow.
“This board likes to be consistent with the university when it comes to issues of health, safety and welfare of its citizens,” he said.
Even with an ordinance, Little said, a scooter service could spread police too thin, especially as they deal with an ongoing rash of violent crimes that started earlier this year.
“Our police officers have their hands full right now,” Little said. “We’ve been having shootings or shots fired almost on a weekly basis, it seems lately. They don’t need to be battling this issue. They don’t need to be chasing scooters around town or dealing with multiple scooter calls.”
Further, Little called the scooters an “attractive nuisance” that would become “an accident waiting to happen” when college students returned to the city in the fall.
“These scooters continue to be strewn around town, blocking sidewalks and inhibiting pedestrian traffic flow,” he said. “… (If) someone who has been somewhat impaired decides it’s a good idea for their group to go for a joyride … something bad is going to happen when you have someone sitting there (in the Cotton District) and they have a six pack of beer and they decide they are going to go get on one and have a good time in the middle of the street. Well, the middle of the street’s not a place to go to have a good time.”
Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk stood alone Friday in opposition to the ban, since Walker did not attend the meeting. She noted Bird has logged more than 9,000 rides in Starkville in its first three months of operation, with use blended between recreation and transportation. She also praised Bird for actively dealing with the city’s concerns.
Bird representative Micahel Cavato, joining the meeting over Zoom, detailed some of those efforts, including geofencing off Highway 12 so the scooters would not operate there, creating “slow zones” in places like University Drive where the scooters would run much slower than their peak 15 mph and requiring users to submit a photo of where they parked at the end of their ride.
“All we need is an open line of communication with the city,” Cavato said.
Sistrunk said not only would citizens be impacted by the ban. So would fleet operators who are local entrepreneurs.
A ‘behavior issue’
Perkins, in his comments, seemed unmoved by that argument.
“They just ride them as if they are the only ones on the roadway,” Perkins said. “… Safety is my main concern. I am not going to be focused on who is the operator of this business. I don’t care if it’s someone from Starkville, Mississippi, from Hawaii, California, Alaska, Montana, South Dakota, if you come into this city you will have to comply with the rules of the road. … Right now, with these scooters, this community is not safe.”
Spruill acknowledged there will still be bad actors if the scooter service is allowed back.
“It’s a behavior issue,” she told The Dispatch. “The reality is we’re not going to reach a greater level of safety with these than we have with bicycles (which do require helmets and certain riding rules).”
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.