City Council’s meeting was cut short Monday - and a controversial smoking ban abruptly dismissed — after advocates withdrew their support following a series of amendments they said watered down the proposal.
Representatives of local advocacy group One Air Alliance said they will now seek to place the issue before voters through an initiative petition.
The ordinance, sponsored by Mayor Jim O’Neal and Councilmembers Dan Chiles, John Rush and Cindy Rushefsky, would have replaced current city restrictions on smoking with a more all-encompassing one on smoking in workplaces and buildings open to the public, as well as some outdoor areas.
Only private residences and designated hotel rooms would have been exempt. Bars and restaurants, 63 of which currently make use of exemptions in the current law, would have been able to allow smoking only on outdoor patios or sidewalk cafes.
O’Neal offered two amendments before the public comment period began Monday. One, he said, corrected an inadvertent change that would have banned smoking in private homes where meetings are held.
The other would have created an exception for tobacco shops, as long as their primary business was the blending and sale of tobacco products and they were not located in another establishment such as a bar or restaurant.
Both changes easily passed. Then Councilman Nick Ibarra, taking issue with a clause calling for the ordinance to be “liberally construed” in favor of prohibition, moved that the language be struck from the bill.
That change also was approved (with all of the sponsors but Chiles voting against). After a few more questions, Ibarra offered another amendment, this time adding an exemption for a string of fraternal and veterans organizations as well as bingo halls.
Ibarra said that, if the city was going to infringe on the liberties of any residents, “I would ask that we not do it for the people who protect those liberties,” drawing applause from part of the standing-room-only crowd.
O’Neal, calling for order, argued against the exemption, saying it went against the intent of the bill to protect the health of workers, primarily in the service industry.
“I will not place their well-being on the altar of tobacco,” he said.
The amendment passed, as he and the ban’s other sponsors were outnumbered by the remaining five councilmembers.
City Attorney Dan Wichmer, expressing concern that the specific list of exempt organizations would be better expressed with a more general definition, asked for a few minutes to craft substitute language.
Council heard from the first few of 45 scheduled speakers before he returned with an amended version, adopted 6-3, that exempted private, non-profit clubs with “fraternal or benevolent” purposes. Wichmer said existing bingo halls run by such organizations would be included.
As public comment resumed, former supporters immediately began rejecting the amended ordinance.
“You’re opening the door too wide,” said Josh Garrett of the American Cancer Society. “I don’t know why smokers are the only ones with a right to choose.”
Garrett said the ACS could not support the amended version. Carrie Reynolds of One Air Alliance withdrew that group’s support, as well.
“We cannot stand behind this bill,” she said, comparing the issue to child labor laws and others aimed at protecting public health.
Rush, one of the sponsors, asked Reynolds if she wanted council to vote against the bill after “Mr. Ibarra has successfully gutted this ordinance.”
She said yes. “I don’t think this ordinance is good for the city of Springfield.”
Several council members who had supported the amendment weighed in with questions and comments after that.
“We’re being asked to outlaw a product that is legal in all 50 states … ” said Councilman Bob Stephens.
While some described the ordinance’s intent as protecting worker safety, “what we have here goes far beyond a workplace safety issue,” he said.
Reynolds said that, unlike the decision to drink alcohol or eat fatty foods, “it is not a personal choice to work or go into a public establishment and be surrounded by smoke.”
Reynolds earlier had described her personal experience battling cancer while pregnant. “If I had been working as a server in a restaurant (that allowed smoking) … I would have had to give up my job or I would have died.”
That prompted a question from Councilman Jerry Compton, who asked Reynolds her opinion on pregnant women working in hazardous jobs such as firefighting or the military. “How should we regulate that?”
“I certainly think a woman has a right to choose where she works,” Reynolds said, later adding: “A lot of people, their hand is forced to working in a (smoking) environment to support their family.”
Moments later, O’Neal announced that he and the other sponsors would voluntarily withdraw the ordinance.
“What I hope happens is the folks from One Air Alliance will start a petition … we’ll let the city vote on this,” he said.
According to the city, the group must gather at least 1,181 signatures to get the issue on a public ballot.
“Let’s do it right or not do it at all,” O’Neal added after the meeting, expressing confidence the group had the resources and support to get the signatures. “And we will pass it.”
Reynolds and her co-chair, Katie Towns-Jeter, said the group will begin making plans for the effort soon. Both said they were disappointed by the outcome of Monday’s meeting.
“But we’re not going to compromise, because it’s an issue of public health,” Towns-Jeter said. “We feel confident we can get the petition supported.”
Ibarra, who said he was as surprised by the abrupt end as anyone, said he “just did what I thought was right.”
Ibarra said he would not have supported the ordinance even with the changes made, but offered the amendments to include “needed exemptions” on the chance the larger bill would be passed.
“I felt like it was a direct infringement on property rights and personal liberty,” he said.
By Amos Bridges
News-Leader, June 29, 2010