Ecker vetoes anti-smoking bill for 2nd time County executive objected to legislation's exception

September 14, 1993|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

For the second time in three months, Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker has vetoed a tough anti-smoking bill -- this time because it would allow smoking in self-enclosed bar areas that have separate ventilating systems.

"I am concerned about the bartenders, waiters and waitresses who will have to work in those smoking areas," Mr. Ecker said.

Mr. Ecker said yesterday he agrees with the objectives of the bill, which he characterized as reducing the health hazards of secondary smoke. The legislation would do that by banning smoking in nearly all public places beginning July 1, 1996. Smoking would still be allowed in the bar area of a restaurant -- if it is self-enclosed and ventilated separately.

That exception, Mr. Ecker said, would create unfair competition among county restaurants because some wouldn't be able to build the separate smoking areas. The bill passed by the council Sept. 7 is better than a nearly identical anti-smoking bill he vetoed June 18, Mr. Ecker said. Although he thinks a ban should apply statewide, Mr. Ecker said he would sign a county no-smoking bill if it had no exemptions.

The earlier proposal exempted bars and taverns earning less than 50 percent of their income from food sales. The new bill removes that exemption and would ban smoking July 1, 1996, at any establishment "which gives or offers food for sale to the public, guests or employees," and in kitchens or catering facilities "in which food is prepared on the premises for serving elsewhere."

Violations would be misdemeanors punishable by a fine not to exceed $100.

"The reason [Mr. Ecker gives for his veto] is nothing but a smoke screen to mask his opposition to any legislation that limits smoking," said Councilman C. Vernon Gray, a 3rd District Democrat and chief architect of the no-smoking bill.

"It's so unfortunate that he doesn't put the health of county citizens first. If he is genuinely interested in assuring the things he says he wants enacted, then I challenge him to send the council a bill in 60 days that will address those concerns. I know the council has done the right thing and hopefully will vote to override [the veto] because it is concerned about the health of our citizens."

Council Chairwoman Shane Pendergrass, a 1st District Democrat, said she thinks the council has worked out a reasonable compromise. "What we gave up is more than balanced by what we kept. When you look at it in balance, it was the right thing to do. I am optimistic the council will vote to override."

Unless four of the five council members vote Sept. 20 to override Mr. Ecker's veto, it will stand. Although the council voted 4-1 to approve the bill, support for an override is frail.

Councilman Charles C. Feaga, a 5th District Republican, voted against both bills and is expected to vote again to sustain Mr. Ecker's veto. Councilman Paul R. Farragut, a 4th District Democrat, is undecided. Although he voted for the bill, Mr. Farragut opposed the last-minute amendment by Councilman Darrel Drown, a 2nd District Republican, exempting self-enclosed restaurant bars with separate ventilating systems.

Without the amendment, the bill would have allowed smoking after July 1, 1996, in any establishment that earned more than 50 percent of its income from the sale of alcohol.

Mr. Drown, who supported Mr. Ecker's June veto, said it is likely he will vote to override the veto this time. Mr. Drown supported the earlier veto because the bill contained a so-called smokers' rights clause.

If the council votes to override the veto, other provisions of the bill would take effect in 60 days. Restaurants would have to reduce the amount of seating available to smokers, employers would have to increase the amount of smoke-free work space and owners of private residences would have to refrain from smoking if their homes were used for day care.

The rationale for waiting until July 1996 to impose a total smoking ban is to give the Maryland legislature time to enact a smoking prohibition statewide.

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