New smoking ban proposed

Republicans fault latest county bill, which would take effect in 2007


For the fourth time since November, a bill to ban smoking in all Howard County bars and restaurants - this one to take effect June 1, 2007 - has been submitted to the County Council.

The move sets up another month of conflict between the health advocates and Democrats who want to eliminate what they consider a public health hazard, and the business owners who fear financial ruin joined by Republicans who oppose a loss of personal freedom.

The sponsors, County Executive James N. Robey and Councilman Ken Ulman, both Democrats, said they submitted their bill yesterday because substantive changes they want to make in the smoking-ban bill now before the council would require a public hearing. They also want to give new Councilman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, a chance to participate at the hearing. The Robey-Ulman bill would be formally introduced May 1 and voted on June 5.

Robey said he was prepared to amend the current bill until he received legal advice that the changes would require another month and a new hearing anyway.

"One year still gives businesses time to adjust to it," Robey said. The new deadline is seven months closer than Jan. 1, 2008, the full enforcement date in his original bill. Robey said he later opted for a two-year delay as a compromise to give businesses time to recoup money spent for separate smoking areas and to adjust to the change.

But western county Republican Councilman Charles C. Feaga said introducing a new bill is "childish and immature" political one-upsmanship.

The new bill is expected to have support from a new majority of three council Democrats on the five-member council. Former Councilman David A. Rakes, a Democrat who resigned last month, sided with the two Republicans in opposing Robey and Ulman's first bill.

Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican who sponsored the second and third no-smoking bills but has mainly sided with businesses who oppose changing current law, denounced the new measure as anti-business and a blatant political move. Democrats deny both charges.

"This is another measure taken against the business community and provides for a lack of predictability," Merdon said. "They've [Robey and Ulman] chosen to delay the vote for political purposes."

Joe Barbera, president of the Howard County Restaurant Association, said the one-year enforcement date will mean the end for some small businesses.

"The number of restaurants that fail is in direct relation to the amount of time you give people" to consider their business options. "One year is not enough time," he said.

But Glenn Schneider, legislative chairman of the Smoke Free Howard County Coalition, applauded the measure as "a great, strong bill," though he'd prefer no enforcement delay, he said.

"We're not crazy about the [enforcement] phase-in, but I'm excited that politics might have produced a stronger, better set of public health protections for Howard countians."

Robey's initial smoking-ban bill, introduced last fall, delayed full enforcement until Jan. 1, 2008. Merdon tabled that, and then backed a bill with a four-year delay, which was passed by the council, but vetoed by Robey. Merdon's latest bill, which carries an enforcement deadline of July 1, 2008, is scheduled for a May 1 vote, but would be tabled, Ulman said.

In addition to the June 2007 enforcement date, the Robey-Ulman bill would:

Eliminate exemptions for truck stops and commercial catering halls.

Require managers in stronger language to refuse to serve or seat smoking patrons in a non-smoking place.

Ban smoking in enclosed outdoor restaurant areas.

Exempt Main Street Ellicott City from a provision that bans people from smoking outside within 15 feet of a building door, window or ventilator because of narrow sidewalks.

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