County Council postpones vote on countywide smoking ban
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 29, 2009 - The St. Louis County Council on Tuesday postponed further debate on a smoking-ban referendum bill until at least next week after people complained the council was rushing the process.
"We want more time to show this bill to bar and restaurant owners across St. Louis County and to study it ourselves," said Bill Hannegan, head of the Keep St. Louis Free coalition, a group that opposed a ban, in an interview after the meeting. "It's been very rushed, and that makes it very difficult for us to deal with it."
Attendees were concerned that the County Council was planning to vote on a proposal the public hadn't seen yet. They said no drafts of the proposal, sponsored by Councilwoman Barbara Fraser, D-University City, were available before the meeting started.
Council members acknowledged they hadn't finished drawing up the proposal's details until just before the meeting started. The council later voted to postpone debate until next week to give the public time to study the bill.
Some 24 people spoke at the oft-heated meeting; most of them opposed the ban. The delay in getting copies of the bill angered many speakers. Roughly 60-70 people attended the meeting.
"Thank God I don't run my business the way this whole thing came about because how am I supposed to get up here as an intelligent college graduate and speak on something that I don't even know what I'm talking about?" said Marty Ginsburg, owner of Sports Page Enterprises in Chesterfield.
"I don't care if it goes on the ballot, but I'd like to know: What is going on the ballot?" Ginsburg added.
Multiple attendees also accused Fraser of trying to rush a vote to help her chances of election to higher office in 2010.
"I believe this is grandstanding," Ladue resident Maryann Rober told Fraser. "You're pushing something through. You're here tonight with no bill that we can read."
Fraser later responded that she wants a vote soon because time is running out -- the council must approve the measure by Aug. 18 to make the November ballot --- and many council members could be absent in the coming weeks.
The referendum would ask voters about banning smoking in all indoor public places in the county, with two variations. One would exempt casinos and bars --- establishments where alcohol accounts for 75 percent of sales -- and one would have no exemptions.
The debate over smoking in St. Louis County follows a growing regional debate over smoking in public places. The city of Clayton voted earlier this month to implement a smoking ban starting next year. At about the same time, the Kirkwood City Council voted against an initiative brought about by supporters of a ban on smoking; the voters will have the final say in November. And in the city of St. Louis, the Board of Aldermen is still discussing a smoking ban, but one that would be dependent on the county also passing a ban.
DEBATE OVER THE BAN
Business owners, many of whom own bars and restaurants with many smoking patrons, also showed up en masse to oppose the proposal. They argued the proposal would harm business and redirect customers elsewhere.
Joe Toenjes of Kirkwood said the county's measure would violate owners' right to choose how they run their businesses. Toenjes is fronting an alternative in his city to a full smoking ban called ChooseKirkwood; he said after the meeting that both Kirkwood and the county should instead require businesses to post signs saying whether they allow smoking so that patrons can choose whether to enter.
Jeff Gershman is spokesman for the Independent Restaurant & Tavern Owners Association of St. Louis, which has around 200 bars, taverns, clubs and lounges. He said members of the association would be the "most affected" and the "least likely to survive" a ban.
A smaller number spoke out in favor of the proposal. Fraser and others cited studies showing the negative effects of secondhand smoke on public health, such as increased cancer rates.
St. Louis resident Travis Wilson argued for the ban, even though he said it would limit one freedom.
"I'm advocating another freedom: the freedom of the county's citizens to breathe air free from secondhand smoke," said Wilson, who added that the measure was "taking a stand" for clean air.
Misty Snodgrass, a registered lobbyist and the legislative government relations director for the American Cancer Society's Missouri chapter, said the measure would also save public-health taxpayer dollars.
But she drew jeers from the crowd when she said studies have shown smoking bans don't negatively affect business.
The proposed casino exemption also drew the ire of several business owners, who argued it was discriminatory and unfairly favored out-of-town casinos over hometown businesses.
Some also accused Fraser of hypocrisy for saying she cared deeply about the ban but still supported exempting casinos.
But Fraser said the casino exemption could help secure the four votes needed for passage. Still, she said she prefers a bill without the exemption.
"My passion would be a pure bill," Fraser said. "If we have four votes that can put it on the ballot, that will be the bill."
Hannegan said he hopes the council doesn't put the referendum on the ballot; instead, he wants the council to decide the issue itself to avoid a battle in the community.
"A ballot fight would be absolutely brutal," Hannegan said. "It'd be hugely expensive both to St. Louis County, to business owners and to the opposition."
Hannegan said he plans to distribute nearly 20,000 fliers to county restaurant and bar owners urging them to tell the County Council to vote the proposal down.
Puneet Kollipara, an intern at the Beacon, is a student at Washington University.