Proposed smoking ban delayed

City Council sponsor wants to wait until O'Malley is governor, for fear he'd kill bill as mayor

December 01, 2006|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,Sun reporter

The chief advocate of a proposed smoking ban in Baltimore said yesterday that he plans to delay a final City Council vote on the measure until after Mayor Martin O'Malley becomes governor in January.

Councilman Robert W. Curran said he fears that if the council approves the bill at its final 2006 meeting next Thursday, O'Malley - who prefers a statewide ban - would kill the bill before he becomes governor Jan. 17.

Curran said he believes the bill would have a better chance of passing if the council votes on it Jan. 22, after Council President Sheila Dixon has become mayor.

"We're in the shadows of the goal line on this, and I'm not going to try to fumble it," Curran said. "[O'Malley] prefers a statewide bill. Does that mean he won't sign a local bill? I'm not going to take the risk."

O'Malley has preferred a statewide ban because he believes a city-specific prohibition would drive patrons of Baltimore bars and restaurants into surrounding counties that do not have similar ordinances.

"The mayor's position has always been clear: He prefers that this be taken up on the statewide level," said Raquel M. Guillory, an O'Malley spokeswoman.

Curran said he will ask the 15-member council at its Monday meeting to delay its final vote until Jan. 22. The proposed ordinance would still need to pass on second reader at the council's Thursday session.

He said he is confident the second-reader vote will pass because it needs only a majority of present council members. But he will need eight council members for final passage in January.

Melvin R. Thompson, vice president of the Restaurant Association of Maryland, said Curran does not have the votes he needs. "We've talked to just about every council member, and we're not sure the votes are there to pass the measure," Thompson said.

Dixon has been supportive of the measure and is studying how businesses in other cities across the nation have fared under smoking bans. But even if Dixon ends up displaying her preliminary support for the bill Thursday, her vote will not matter once she leaves the council to become mayor. That means Curran will have to find another supporter.

Proponents of the smoking-ban legislation - which would impose a prohibition starting in 2008 on all public places including bars and restaurants - are hopeful that if the bill passes in Baltimore, the General Assembly would be more inclined to pass a statewide version. In Maryland, only Howard, Montgomery, Prince George's and Talbot counties have bans.

Despite his preference, O'Malley is unlikely to advocate a statewide ban because it never emerged as part of his campaign platform, according to the mayor's aides. Bills for statewide bans have failed to pass the General Assembly over the past three years.

But two Democratic state lawmakers - Del. Barbara A. Frush of Prince George's County and Sen. Robert J. Garagiola of Montgomery County - said they intend to champion the measure again next year.

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said the steady success of smoking bans in some of Maryland's largest counties is sure to ease the path for a statewide ban. The more jurisdictions in Maryland that enact bans, he said, the more restaurant owners will want a level playing field within the state.

"If the governor makes it a legislative initiative, then I think that it gets wings," Middleton said. "When you look at the percentage of the membership of the Maryland Restaurant Association that is operating under a ban, I wouldn't be a bit surprised if soon you're going to see [it] as a part of their agenda - either not opposing a ban or even supporting a statewide ban."

The Baltimore City Council's five-member Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee, which Curran chairs, voted, 4-1, for the bill last month. The committee added a few amendments that slightly weakened the measure and helped gain the backing of some council members, including Vice President Stephanie Rawlings Blake, who is likely to become council president.

One change would make violations of the proposed ban a civil violation rather than a criminal offense. Smokers caught breaking the law would be fined $250, and business owners would face a $500 penalty for each smoker they allow to light up.

The ban as proposed would begin Jan. 1, 2008, giving Baltimore businesses and the city Health Department about a year to implement

Sun reporter Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.

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