Smoking-ban bill reintroduced in Howard County

Revival move by the council chairman viewed by some a political maneuver


A proposed ban on smoking in all Howard county bars and restaurants was suddenly revived last night after the County Council's chairman, Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon, reintroduced a bill he had helped kill in January.

The ban, which if passed would take effect Jan. 1, 2008, had originally been sought by Howard Executive James N. Robey, a Democrat.

The move shocked other council members and those in the audience of the sparsely attended meeting in Ellicott City, but delighted anti-smoking advocates, who had hoped to use a ban in Howard County to help spur statewide action.

Three other Maryland counties have banned smoking - Talbot, Montgomery and Prince George's - and the District of Columbia enacted a similar law last year. A statewide bill died in this year's General Assembly, however.

"I hope this represents some true progress on behalf of Councilman Merdon. This is wonderful," said Glenn E. Schneider, legislative chairman of Smoke Free Howard County.

But others saw the revival of the smoking-ban bill as an election-year maneuver by Merdon, who is seeking the Republican nomination for county executive. Robey, completing his second four-year term, by law must step down.

"I can't imagine any motive other than a political motive, said Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat who is also vying for county executive. "What's the urgency?" he asked, pointing out that it would not take effect for months.

Merdon said he took action to forestall another long dispute over smoking while the council faced the budget and other more important issues. He asked for a suspension of council rules to introduce the last-minute measure, even though he later indicated he would likely not support it

"My opinion on this legislation has not changed at all," he said, explaining that the unusual action came after David A. Rakes, a Democrat who sided with the council's two Republicans to form a 3-2 majority on the issue, suddenly resigned his seat last week. Rakes, who formally left office Friday, was in the audience last night after being honored with a resolution for his service.

Merdon said the county executive would re-introduce the bill once another Democrat was appointed to fill Rakes' vacant seat, so he decided to act sooner rather than wait for Robey to do it.

"Obviously, the change in the dynamics on the council has driven me to reintroduce the bill," he said.

Merdon opposed Robey's bill last year, arguing that business owners and restaurant patrons should have the right to choose whether to eat in a place that allows smoking. Current Howard law permits smoking in bars and restaurants that have physically separate smoking areas with separate ventilation systems.

Merdon had tabled the Robey bill the first time around and refused to allow the council take a direct vote on it. Instead, Merdon's coalition approved a similar bill with a four-year enforcement delay for places that now allow smoking. Robey vetoed that, saying the delay was too long.

Merdon refused to say exactly how he would vote on Robey's bill when it comes up for a vote in May, but he did hint at it.

"The new council member will likely determine the fate of the bill," he said, meaning that if the new member votes with the other two Democrats, they would have a 3-2 majority. Western county Republican Charles C. Feaga said he still opposes a smoking ban.

Jordon Naftal, owner of a popular Main Street Ellicott City steakhouse and a former county restaurant association president, said his position has not changed.

"We're still not in favor of any ban whatsoever. Nothing has really changed. Only 17 percent of Howard restaurants allow smoking now."

Naftal suggested that Merdon's action might have forestalled a new Robey bill with no enforcement delay. Robey first bill delayed a total ban until Jan. 1, 2008.

"This is more favorable than what could happen," Naftal said.

Robey was unavailable for comment last night.

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