Anthony “Big World” Mitchell sat in the Richmond City Commission chambers Tuesday evening dressed in a pin-stripped suit and a magenta T-shirt designed by one of his supporters.
But when he had a chance to address the city commission, he failed to speak.
Mitchell is well known in the city where for years he has carried advertising placards on a bicycle or riding lawn mower.
In recent months however, Richmond police have informed him that bicycles are prohibited on sidewalks by city ordinance while state and federal laws do not allow riding lawn mowers on streets.
Mitchell is still getting around, pedaling a bicycle along streets, but not as much.
By the time the meeting began, he had collected more than 700 signatures on a petition asking the city commission for an accommodation.
Prior to the 6 p.m. meeting, about 30 people wearing Big World T-shirts and carrying placards proclaiming “You can’t stop the World” and other supportive slogans staged a rally in front of City Hall.
About 80 people were present for the commission meeting which allows public comments near the end of the agenda.
When Mayor Jim Barnes asked if anyone wanted to address the commission then, the room fell silent. When he asked again, Fire Chief Buzzy Campbell approached the panel and told how new firefighters were progressing in their training.
When Barnes again asked for public comments, no one came forward and comment time for each commissioner, the city manager and the mayor began.
When Commissioner Laura King’s turn to speak came, she asked that the city attorney draft a revision of the 1979 ordinance that prohibits bicycles on city sidewalks.
While the ordinance allows bicycles to be ridden on streets, King said she didn’t believe anyone wanted children, perhaps as young as age 7, riding bicycles in traffic.
She called the ordinance “antiquated” and without mentioning Big World, said it “has been used in a very sad way.”
The ordinance also could be construed to prohibit motorized wheelchairs from being used on city sidewalks, she said.
Recently, King said she observed a sidewalk for two and a half hours and counted 16 cyclists “going to class.”
The audience erupted in applause and cheers when she concluded.
City Attorney Garrett Fowles said he understood King’s concerns and would attempt to draft an ordinance that would ease restrictions while still keeping sidewalks safe for pedestrians.
Fowles said he rides a bicycle about 100 miles a week, and a pedestrian would be at risk if a cyclist rode down sidewalks at 25 mph.
Commissioner Robert Blythe said safety was the ordinance’s intent and recalled as a child he was instructed to dismount from his bicycle whenever he came upon pedestrians in the sidewalk.
When Barnes’ turn came to speak, he said the challenge for local government is to protect all of its citizens.
Many of the city’s sidewalks do not conform to Americans with Disabilities Act standards, the mayor said. A sidewalk properly designed and constructed to accommodate both pedestrians and bicycles would be about 8 feet wide, he added.
Barnes said he was adamant about protecting “all the people, not just a few” and “would not sacrifice one person walking on our sidewalks” to accommodate those who want to ride bicycles there.
As the last member of the commission to address the audience, Barnes called for a motion to adjourn when he concluded.
When the roll was called to approve adjournment, audience members began to speak up, saying they wanted to address the commission.
The mayor ruled them out of order, telling them the time for public comments had passed.
Some said they were unfamiliar with commission procedure and didn’t realize when they should have spoken.
Barnes said they could return for then next meeting, Tuesday, May 27, and several promised they would.
Asked after the meeting why he hadn’t approached the commission, Mitchell said he too failed to understand when he could have spoken. He also was a bit nervous, he admitted, having never attended a commission meeting.
Next time, however, Mitchell said he would be ready.
By the time additional well wishers had signed his petition after the meeting, they numbered 769.
Bill Robinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 624-6690.