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County Council will start over on smoking ban

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 7, 2009 - The St. Louis County Council plans to reintroduce its smoking ban bill next Tuesday because of a procedural problem at last Tuesday's meeting, the bill's sponsor said today.

Bill sponsor Barbara Fraser, D-University City, said the decision was made "to guard against legal challenges so that all council members would have substantial additional time to review the bill and because of the importance of it."

The council originally voted 4-3 on Tuesday to move forward with the bill. It would ask voters in November whether they want to ban smoking in all indoor public places except bars and casinos.

The bill the council tentatively OK'd was the bill's second version. The council earlier Tuesday evening voted down the first version of the bill, which had no exemptions. There were some concerns that approving a measure that was previously rejected would be grounds for a legal challenge.

Reintroducing the bill pushes the timetable for a potential final vote to Aug. 25, which Fraser said will most likely cause the council to miss the deadline that same day for putting items on the November ballot. If County Executive Charles Dooley signs the measure, the council would have to obtain a court order to put it on the ballot.

Fraser said getting a court order is "not an onerous process, and it's done quite frequently."

"But to make a better bill, we have to make sure we have the I's dotted and the T's crossed," Fraser said. "It is the better decision. We just don't want to take chance with this. It's too important."

At a packed meeting rife with procedural problems, the St. Louis County Council voted 4-3 Tuesday night to perfect a controversial countywide smoking-ban referendum bill -- as debate in the community continued to heat up.

The perfected bill, which is expected to pass, would place a smoking ban on the November ballot. Voters would then decide whether they want to ban smoking in all indoor public places, except bars and casinos. The council will have a final vote on the bill on Aug. 18.

More than 200 people filled every seat at a meeting with even more fireworks than the one last week. Around 65 people addressed the council, which heard arguments for more than two hours before it voted.

The bill's sponsor, Barbara Fraser, D-University City, had floated two versions of the bill -- one with no exemptions and one with them. She said she preferred the more restrictive version and called for a vote on it, but she didn't have enough votes. She then replaced that version with the version with exemptions.

Voting for the bill were Fraser, Councilmen Greg Quinn, R-Ballwin, and Steve Stenger, D-Affton, and Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, R-Town and Country.

Opposing the ban vote were council Chairwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, and council members Kathleen Burkett, D-Overland, and Mike O'Mara, D-Florissant.

Fraser said in an interview after the meeting that the final bill is still "a great first step for the county."

"We're moving forward in the right direction," Fraser said. "It's time for us to make this clean-air movement. This is about the health of our citizens."

Despite having enough concessions for Fraser to find four votes, the final bill disappointed some people on both sides of the debate.

Many supporters of the ban wanted a bill without exemptions because they said it would protect the health of bar and casino workers and patrons. But many people against a ban decried the casino exemption, which they said would treat local businesses unfairly.

"I'm not sure that anybody came out a winner tonight, and certainly not the health of bar and casino workers," said St. Louis resident Bob Johnson, who prefers a total ban.


Some people were upset that the council suffered procedural problems for the second straight week. Some votes on the bill were interrupted so Fraser could explain provisions. The council hit other snags along the way.

"It was a pretty disgraceful performance on Barbara Fraser's part," said Bill Hannegan, head of Keep St. Louis Free, which has also opposed a ban in Kirkwood, after the meeting. "Nobody seemed to know what they were voting on. Nobody seemed to know what Barbara Fraser was doing."

Several council members expressed frustration again at Tuesday's meeting due to continuing lack of familiarity with the bill. Fraser, however, said council members had since last week to review the bill.

O'Mara proposed having the council's committee on justice and health take up the bill for further discussion; the council rejected the motion 4-3. O'Mara said the bill was being rushed and needed a compromise. 

Tuesday's events echoed some from the last meeting. No copies of the bill were available until 10 minutes into the meeting; Fraser said that day that council members finished writing the bill just before the meeting. The council voted to postpone debate after some council members and citizens complained that the council was rushing to pass a measure that few people understood at the time.


Speakers at Tuesday's meeting were largely divided on the bill.

Supporters of a ban said it would improve public health by eliminating secondhand smoke in public places. They cited studies showing that secondhand smoke can lead to serious health consequences such as cancer, even for non-smokers.

"I am so for this comprehensive ban that I could pass out here," said Manchester resident and lung-cancer survivor Carol Becker, who fought back tears. "I hope you'll understand the importance of saving people's lives."

"I'm a statistic that you don't see, because most of the time, I'm dead," Becker added.


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Other supporters also said a ban could increase business at places that currently allow smoking by attracting customers who don't like sitting around people who smoke.

Opponents said that a ban would drive business away to nearby areas, such as St. Charles County. Hannegan told the council that bar owners are "worried sick" about the bill.

Some opponents also said business owners should be allowed to choose whether to allow smoking. Elise Kostial, a middle-school student from Ellisville who appeared alongside Gov. Jay Nixon in a recent anti-youth-smoking public-service announcement, told the council she encourages other people not to smoke. But she said government should not interfere with business owners' property rights.

"The right to property is the basis of our Constitution and our entire legal system," Kostial said. "Passage of this legislation would be an encroachment on that right."

Hannegan said in an interview that he's trying to drum up support for a "more reasonable proposal" to put on the November ballot. His proposal would exempt adults and restrict people under 21 from entering places that allow smoking.

"To the extent that secondhand smoke health risks exist, children are the most vulnerable part of the population," Hannegan said. "So it's reasonable and rational to first restrict their exposure, rather than the exposure of adults. Also, children don't have the capacity to freely choose in the way adults do."


Meanwhile, back in the city


St. Louis aldermen will resume debate on a citywide smoking ban in September after returning from break. That ban, if passed, wouldn't take effect unless St. Louis County passes its own ban, a provision addressing concerns from some that business might otherwise leave for the county.

The ordinance's sponsor, Alderwoman Lyda Krewson, D-28th Ward, said the county's willingness to consider its own ban is "a positive sign" for her ordinance and could increase the chance of hers passing.

"I think the fact that we have now spread the conversation to more and more folks is very positive," Krewson said.

There are still some in St. Louis County, County Executive Charlie Dooley reportedly among them, who oppose a local ban but would support a statewide ban due to similar economic concerns.

But passing a statewide ban in the state legislature poses its own special challenges.

Puneet Kollipara, an intern at the Beacon, is a student at Washington University.