As anti-smoking advocates gear up for another attempt at getting the Maryland General Assembly to ban smoking in public places statewide, Howard County Executive James N. Robey's attempt to add local momentum to the drive appears stalled.
A County Council vote on a complete smoking ban in Howard bars and restaurants was postponed without discussion for a month last night to allow a second smoking measure to be considered.
The postponement doesn't appear to improve the ban's chances of passage by the five-member body because three councilmen oppose the Robey administration measure and favor the second proposal that would grandfather in smoking in existing establishments.
"Both bills have merits to them, and we want to compare them side by side," said newly selected council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican.
But West Columbia Democrat Ken Ulman, a co-sponsor of the bill tabled last night, said the move was prompted by other motives.
"My guess is they'll do everything they can not to have a vote against Jim Robey's bill on the record."
But anti-smoking advocates at the meeting were pleased by the delay because it will give them more time to lobby the council majority.
"We're happy to have another month to have citizens contact their lawmakers," said Glenn Schneider, legislative chairman of the Howard County Smoke Free Coalition.
"We're still very hopeful it will not be defeated," said Kari Appler, the director of the Maryland Smoke Free Coalition. Since 1996, a Howard County law has required separately ventilated smoking areas for restaurants that allow smoking. Robey is seeking a total ban, with a two-year exemption for places that now allow smoking.
But the council's two Republicans, joined by east Columbia Democrat David A. Rakes, have argued that Robey's proposal is too extreme, given the money business owners have spent to comply with current law.
In addition, Merdon, a candidate for county executive, has argued that a total ban is too extreme and improperly substitutes government regulation for business owners' and patrons' freedom of choice.
Rakes introduced a bill last night that would ban smoking in new establishments but allow it to continue where it now exists until those businesses change ownership. Anti-smoking advocates and Robey have said they oppose Rakes' bill.