Howard bill may be snuffed out

Three of 5 council members likely to oppose smoking ban in restaurants and bars

Baltimore & Region


A bill to ban smoking in all Howard County restaurants and bars appears to have little chance of passage because of opposition from three of the five County Council members to such a sweeping restriction.

The legislation, formally introduced Monday night, is scheduled for a vote Dec. 5. A similar bill was approved yesterday by the Prince George's County Council, which joined Montgomery and Talbot counties in Maryland's growing no-smoking crusade.

Howard's bill is in jeopardy because of several key council members' concern for businesses that spent heavily to create physically separate smoking and nonsmoking areas to comply with current Howard law that took effect in 1996.

The bill sponsored by County Executive James N. Robey and Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat, would give such places two years' grace before taking effect. But the co-sponsors oppose a suggested compromise that would allow smoking to continue in existing businesses indefinitely.

Robey and Ulman say they aren't giving up, believing that the public sees the bill as an issue of public health, not business. They also warn that those who oppose it could run a political risk next year.

"It's premature for me to throw in the towel and say, `Woe is me,'" Robey said yesterday. If Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican running for county executive, votes against the measure, "he'll be held accountable" by voters, Robey said.

Some county Republicans accuse Robey -- who is ending his second and final term as executive -- of promoting the bill for his own political gain in an expected run for state Senate next year, a charge he denies.

Merdon and east Columbia Democrat David A. Rakes appear poised to vote against the bill, though Rakes pledged to support the concept as a candidate in 2002. West county Republican Charles C. Feaga consistently has said he opposes the measure, making a 3-2 defeat likely.

"It's a good bill. It's not the bill I'm interested in doing," Rakes said after the legislation was formally introduced. He wants to grandfather in smoking rights for the 69 existing bars and restaurants that allow it.

Merdon has not said how he will vote, but has made clear he is leaning against the idea.

"The Robey approach is too radical, in my opinion. There is a more sensible approach to this issue," he said last week. But he offered no alternative Monday night.

Robey's bill would ban smoking at all bars and restaurants in Howard County, though it would allow places that have smoking until Jan. 1, 2008, to adjust.

"I'm still holding out hope. If for some reason it doesn't pass this time, it will pass in the future," Ulman said. If the bill dies, he added, "it's something for people to talk about and think about as they decide who to support in the next election."

Anti-smoking advocates, meanwhile, are putting pressure on the two wavering council members.

"Of course we are focused on rounding up the votes to get this thing passed. Clearly Chris and Dave are the two people who have yet to commit one way or the other," said Glenn E. Schneider, legislative chairman of the Smoke Free Howard County Tobacco Coalition.

"We have been all over Councilman Rakes' district, letting people know he had not made up his mind. He has been getting a lot of phone calls, and we will continue," Schneider said. "We don't want to make them angry. We want to let them know their constituents care about this."

Despite his campaign pledge, Rakes said he has learned more about the plight of small-business owners who might suffer under a complete ban. County restaurant and bar owners strongly oppose strengthening Howard's law.

"My concern is living up to what we promised these folks [bar and restaurant owners] in 1997," Rakes said.

Schneider noted that there are weeks to go before any vote, along with a public hearing scheduled for Nov. 21.

"The pressure comes to bear at the vote," he said.

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