Moped action revs up in Oak Bluffs

Former selectman Todd Rebello represented the interests of moped rental business owners to the board of selectmen and town counsel. — Stacey Rupolo

There was no shortage of groans, applause, or glowering at the Oak Bluffs selectmen’s meeting on Tuesday night when public hearings were held to debate the renewal of the licenses for the three moped rental businesses in town. The crowd wedged into the Oak Bluffs library meeting room was almost entirely comprised of moped rental opponents.

Former chairman of the board of selectman Todd Rebello again spoke for Jason Leone, owner of two of the businesses, Island Hoppers and King of Rentals, and co-owner of Ride On Mopeds with Aguimar Carlos. While a selectman, Mr. Rebello was one of the authors of the revisions to town moped bylaws in 2002.

Mr. Rebello was responding to March 16 letters from town administrator Robert Whritenour which outlined the allegations of bylaw infractions against each moped rental business in the Jan. 20 complaint filed by the Mopeds Are Dangerous Action Committee (MADAC). The allegations included lack of licenses on file, absence of required training tracks, and changes in location and in ownership, all prohibited by 2002 revisions in town moped bylaws.

“None of these licenses, in at least 30 years, have ever had a violation,” Mr. Rebello said. “There were seven moped businesses when we wrote the bylaws; now there are three.”

Town counsel Ron Rappaport of Reynolds, Rappaport, Kaplan & Hackney was on hand to “gather the facts” so he could render an informed opinion to the board at a later date. He reiterated the point made in attorney Michael Goldsmith’s 13-page legal opinion, presented to town officials on March 11, which cited a 1981 State Supreme Court decision which denied Provincetown’s proposed ban on rental mopeds.

“Massachusetts general laws give the right to anyone to operate a moped in the state, by statute,” Mr. Rappaport said. “The bottom line is that we cannot go down to zero mopeds because that is, in effect, prohibition.”

Mr. Rappaport said the issue of proper training is an issue of public safety that he will consider separately.

How many wobbles?

The most heated issue of the hearings was the training, or lack thereof, at the three moped rental concerns.

“This is the testiest point in the whole issue,” Mr. Rebello said. “The introduction of the test track requirement in the bylaw was for the sole purpose of the prohibition of moped rentals in the town of Oak Bluffs.”

As he had done at three previous selectmen’s meetings, Mr. Rebello stated that the codicil was only intended to ensure that no new moped businesses could open, since a 50-foot-long, 25-foot-wide test track would be nearly impossible to accommodate in the B-1 district.

“We wanted to handcuff the town from ever issuing any more licenses,” he said. “It has never been enforced since 2002.”

Mr. Rebello said to compensate for the lack of a test track, “we had enhanced video, and we had them redone and redone. There is onsite safety education before someone goes out on a moped. The guys show them where the throttle is, where the brake is; that’s the enhanced training that mitigated the need for a test track.”

Mr. Rappaport asked Mr. Leone to describe the enhanced training routine at Island Hoppers: “From start to finish, we make sure you’re old enough, have a credit card, and so on and so forth. We make sure you have your shoes, your glasses, and your helmet. After you watch a safety video, we put you on the moped. Within five to 10 feet, you would know immediately whether that person can use it or not. If they could, we instruct them to continue around the block.”

“And if they don’t come back, you know they can’t do it?” chairman of the selectmen Gail Barmakian said.

Mr. Leone said when the renters come back from their training run, they’re asked again if they feel safe. If they don’t, or are deemed unfit to ride, their money is refunded.

“They refunded tens of thousands of dollars,” Mr. Rebello said.

Erin Leone, wife and business partner with Mr. Leone, said there is a specific key on the registers for refunds for people who fail the training. Mr. Rappaport asked for documentation on the refunds to include in his deliberation.

Several attendees, including a Vineyard Transit Authority bus driver, said they’d had many close calls with “wobbling moped drivers.”

One attendee asked, “Is it one wobble or three wobbles; what’s the threshold of when you’re not able to rent a moped?”

“If I rent a moped to Todd and we give instruction, and Todd turns a corner and gives it to Joe, I don’t see Joe,” Mr. Leone said. “I don’t know about one wobble or two wobbles, but before people leave the shop, there is no wobble.”

Ms. Barmakian asked Mr. Leone for specific criteria for denying a rental. “If they couldn’t control it, we wouldn’t want them out there,” he said.

No grandfathering

Selectman Walter Vail said there is no written record of Mr. Leone going back to selectmen for approval of an alternative training program, which the bylaw states is required if the test track provision cannot be met. “So is the assumption that since the town signed the licenses, that’s tantamount to a waiver?” he said.

Mr. Rebello said the enhanced training, which included watching the instructional video, was the product of numerous committee meetings. “Sixteen years later, it sounds like we’re trying to rewrite that,” he said.

“This gets into grandfathering,” selectman Michael Santoro said. “Just because it hasn’t been enforced in 16 years, does that mean we can’t enforce it now?”

“There is no grandfathering in a moped regulation that does not specifically mention grandfathering,” Mr. Rappaport said, drawing applause. “There are specific statutes dealing with grandfathering in Massachusetts general law. There are a whole host of cases which say that if you don’t specifically state grandfathering, there is no grandfathering.”

MADAC member Nicole Brisson asked what liability Oak Bluffs incurs by allowing town roads to serve as a test track, “around the busiest intersection in town.”

Mr. Rappaport said he would address the liability issue in his final opinion.

“In 40 years, I’ve not known the town of Oak Bluffs or the moped industry to be sued successfully,” Mr. Rebello said.

Town served notice

Mr. Rebello’s assertion will apparently be put to the test. On March 23, North Andover–based attorney Daniel Murphy Jr. sent a “presentment letter” to Ms. Barmakian, informing her that he is suing the town of Oak Bluffs on behalf of his client, Noelle Lambert, the New Hampshire woman who lost a leg in a horrific moped accident last summer. The moped was rented at Ride On Mopeds in Oak Bluffs. According to Mr. Murphy’s letter, “Over the years, Town of Oak Bluffs has consistently disregarded its own bylaws with respect to moped rentals. Because of this, Ms. Lambert was placed in a dangerous and avoidable situation, which led to her accident.”

In an email to The Times on Wednesday, Ms. Barmakian wrote, “I haven’t seen anything specific but the copy of a presentment letter. We put it in the hands of our attorney.”

Town record keeping questioned

Mr. Rebello also addressed allegations in the MADAC complaint that the moped businesses had repeatedly broken the 2002 town bylaws by changing location and ownership, as well as lacking proper licensure.

In the case of Island Hopper, Mr. Rebello presented selectmen with minutes of a March 2006 selectmen’s meeting to support that the board approved the license transfer from “Two Wheel Traveller” to John Leone. Ms. Brisson contended that Jason Leone was added to the license in 2008 with no approval from selectmen. Mr. Rebello said he’d found selectmen’s minutes that showed otherwise. Making a point he would repeat often during all three hearings, Mr. Rebello suggested that many of the purported violations in the MADAC complaint were the result of substandard bookkeeping in town hall over the years, due in part to personnel changes under two previous town administrators.

“Things year to year were done differently,” he said.

Addressing three years of missing licenses for Island Hoppers, Mr. Rebello showed selectmen copies of checks that paid for licenses for 2010, 2011, and 2013. He also said that the town has been remiss in not issuing registration stickers for mopeds for the past four years.

Selectman Michael Santoro noted the checks were dated in August and June, well into the season.

Mr. Rebello said the town was again culpable, because inspections by the volunteer fire department were typically behind schedule.

“We all know inspections have been a problem, for years,” he said.

Addressing the prohibited change of venue — Island Hoppers showed different addresses on Circuit Avenue Extension and Lake Avenue over the years — Mr. Rebello said the locations never changed, but different addresses resulted from the corner lot location. He again implicated the shortcomings of the town. “Addresses were changed after the town made changes to 911,” he said. “I don’t think anyone is going to deny that these moped shops have been at the same location for 40 straight years.”

Mr. Rappaport will publically inform selectmen of his opinion in open session at their regular meeting on April 25. Selectmen will then deliberate and decide on the license renewals.