Smoking bill renews the political struggle


April 23, 2006|By LARRY CARSON

For those who think the political struggle for control of the County Council isn't important, consider county restaurant owners who are looking at a likely one-year enforcement delay on a smoking ban instead of a three-year adjustment period.

The unpredictable key to the difference was former Councilman David A. Rakes, a Democrat who, before he resigned March 31, regularly voted with the council's two Republicans, giving them control with a 3-2 majority.

Before Rakes left, County Executive James N. Robey and the council's other two Democrats said they would settle for a three-year delay in forcing an end to smoking in all bars and restaurants.

But with control of the council, Republicans Christopher J. Merdon and Charles C. Feaga and their ally, Rakes, rejected that, approving a bill with a four-year delay, which Robey vetoed.

Now, with newly appointed Councilman Calvin Ball, a loyal Democrat likely to restore a 3-2 Democratic voting majority, Robey and Democrat Ken Ulman have introduced a new bill with a full ban starting June 1, 2007.

Ulman and Robey's bill has been praised by health advocates as much stronger than previous versions, and the councilman sought to contrast it with a current Merdon-sponsored measure with a July 1, 2008, enforcement deadline that the Democrats plan to table.

"This bill is being introduced by people who actually support the bill and support the issue," Ulman said, adding that because of the cancer that struck his brother, Doug, "this is important to me."

But with Ulman and Merdon running for county executive and Robey seeking a state Senate seat held by Republican Sandra B. Schrader, the smoking issue is producing a raft of charges and countercharges.

Brian Harlin, chairman of the county Republican Party, said: "Robey is again trying to compete with [Del. Elizabeth] Bobo to be the most anti-business legislator in Howard County. He wanted to give business time to adjust and now he's going back on that."

Merdon criticized Robey and Ulman as "turning their back on the business community" and using the issue for political gain.

Robey, who has worked to support local businesses and attract new ventures to the county, denounced the comments.

"They've got to paint me as something. They can't just sit back and take this," he said about the smoking bill. "My record on business speaks for itself."

Robey said he originally proposed a two-year delay, until Jan. 1, 2008, "to give the business community a chance to adjust."

"I went to two [years] because of my commitment to them, and I thought I could sell two to the council," he said. "I was going to compromise with Merdon on three years, and he went to four years.

"The bottom line is they can say whatever they want to say, I don't really care. I have worked hard for the business community and they know it."

Councilman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said Republican complaints "are utter nonsense."

"Several months ago, he [Merdon] denied us the right to vote on a [smoking] bill," Guzzone said. "Then he introduces a bill without consulting us and says he's not even going to vote for it."

With all the political bickering, it's easy to forget the underlying philosophical issues fueling the battle over smoking in public places, but Feaga, 73, a farmer-politician, has a way of getting back to basics.

At the council hearing Monday, Feaga said that although he does believe smoking is harmful, he also feels health isn't necessarily the most important thing in life.

"For me it's the freedom," he said. "Some things are worth more than health - and that's freedom."

New councilman

Although four men were vying to replace Rakes on the County Council, it took the 12 members of the county Democratic Central Committee only 35 minutes to interview all four and vote unanimously for Ball last week.

Ball, a heavy favorite for the appointment before the meeting, was confirmed by the four County Council members before Thursday's budget hearing and took his seat immediately.

His winning pitch to the central committee? "We need someone who is committed and can show a level of consistency," Ball said, explaining that he has lived in Columbia since 1999, is a two-term former president of the county Young Democrats and was development officer for Oakland Mills village before resigning in December to run for the council. He ran in 2002, but lost to Rakes.

"We need people who have demonstrated some service to the community," he said. "We need people who have been active, involved and can bring continuity to the next council. I plan to be a consistent and reliable voice for the voiceless in District 2."

Ball said he supported Democrats in 2002 when he lost and will continue to do so. He is running for a full term on the council this year.

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