Howard County's new anti-smoking proposal was getting fla on three fronts yesterday.
Restaurant owner Pat Patterson said he is considering a court challenge to the bill, County Executive Charles I. Ecker said he might veto it, and Del. Virginia M. Thomas said the County Council made a serious mistake by making smokers a protected class.
Ms. Thomas was referring to a last-minute amendment favored by tobacco industry lobbyist Bruce Bereano that says, "No person or employer shall discharge or refuse to hire any employee or applicant for employment because such employee or applicant engages in use of tobacco products off the work premises during non-working hours."
The council can consider late amendments only if four of its five members vote to do so. Monday night, the council voted unanimously to consider and approve the amendment. Moments earlier, Mr. Bereano had buttonholed Councilman C. Vernon Gray, the bill's chief architect, outside council chambers.
"In my opinion, the council didn't know what it was doing," Ms. Thomas said. "What they've done is wrong. It is a slap in the face against minorities and women, who have had years of discrimination -- a real slap in the face. It should be really, really important when civil rights legislation is involved. Protected classes are too important, too sacred" to be expanded lightly.
Ms. Thomas, a former council member who helped pioneer the county's anti-smoking legislation in the late 1970s, said the Bereano amendment was so different from the rest of the bill that the council should have held a separate public hearing on it.
She said the amendment might cause problems for employers who want to hire only nonsmokers because of higher health premiums for smokers.
Unless the Bereano measure is withdrawn at a future council session, "smokers fired for incompetence will sue on the basis that they were discriminated against because of their addiction to nicotine," Ms. Thomas said. "If I were Chuck Ecker, I would tell the council to go back to the drawing board."
Mr. Ecker is thinking of asking the council to do just that. He said yesterday he is concerned about how the bill will affect businesses -- it bans public smoking everywhere except bars beginning July 1, 1996 -- and had asked the council to amend the bill so it would not take effect until a statewide ban is enacted.
It is the Bereano amendment that has his attention now, however. Like Ms. Thomas, he feels it should have had public discussion prior to passage by the council.
"If I do veto the bill, I feel certain it will be overridden," Mr. Ecker said. "I am not going to lobby to have anyone change their vote. I have to follow my conscience and do what is right."
Four votes are needed to override an executive's veto. The bill passed by a 4-1 margin Monday night.
The Bereano amendment "was the least comfortable part of the vote," said Council Chairwoman Shane Pendergrass, D-1st. "I was least enthused about that part, but I don't like to see people discriminated against for any reason."
Meanwhile, Mr. Patterson, owner of P.J.'s Restaurant in Ellicott City, said he is considering challenging the law on the basis that restaurants are not getting equal treatment since taverns and bars are exempt from it.
Taverns and bars can serve food and still be exempt from the law as long as their food revenue does not account for more than 50 percent of their total income. Even a loss of a few customers will hurt their already competitive business, Ellicott City restaurateurs say. Five restaurants and two taverns there are within walking distance of one another along Main Street.
"Probably the only way to find out [whether the bar exemption is legal] is to take it to court," Ms. Pendergrass said. "But it would be costly for him and costly for the county."