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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Smoking Ban snuffed out in Macon

Smoking ban snuffed out as Macon council fails to overturn veto

By JIM GAINES

Two weeks of public back-and-forth and a wave of public comments about tighter smoking regulations in Macon weren’t enough to shift a single vote among City Council members.

Tuesday’s 9-6 decision was one vote shy of the 10 needed to override Mayor Robert Reichert’s veto of a smoking ordinance, falling in the same 9-6 margin as its initial passage April 19.


The vote means the smoking ban that would have prevented anyone from lighting up in various places, including Macon’s bars, won’t take effect later this year after all.


Council members signaled Monday that they would try to override Reichert’s veto, but no new arguments emerged Tuesday night despite half a dozen speeches from the public and a half-hour of debate among council members themselves.


Facing a packed council chamber, including a contingent holding “Breathe Easy Macon” signs in support of the smoking ordinance, Council President Miriam Paris limited public speakers to three who supported the measure and three who were against it.


The effort to override the veto headed the council’s agenda, and in a pre-council meeting Councilman Mike Cranford noted that according to the usual order, that vote would come before members of the public were allowed to address council -- and most of the intended speakers came to talk about just that subject.


Interim City Attorney Martha Welsh said the council could rearrange that, but Councilman Henry Ficklin disagreed. Though the arrangement was unfortunate, the council should stick to its usual rules no matter what, he said.


When Cranford moved in the actual council meeting to let the public speak before the smoking vote, only Ficklin opposed doing so.


Proponents of the new rules, which essentially would have banned smoking inside all bars and restaurants, plus at some outdoor locations such as playgrounds and amphitheaters, argued that it was a question of public health.


Dave Harvey, district health director for the Macon-Bibb County Health Department and a retired pediatrician, likened the restrictions to gun control laws.


“We’re not saying you shouldn’t have (a gun). We’re saying be careful where you shoot,” he said.


Opponents of the ordinance, such as Element nightclub owner Philip Sinclair, dismissed health arguments as a matter of individual choice and said the law would hurt his business, pushing bar customers to establishments outside city limits.


“I believe y’all are being completely fiscally irresponsible if y’all override the mayor’s veto,” Sinclair said.


When it came time for council members to speak, Ficklin said he backs anti-smoking measures but thinks the public didn’t have time to comment on this ordinance.


“I have no issue with the smoking ban, but what I do have an issue with is the process,” he said.


Cranford said he’s owned many businesses including bars, restaurants and a hotel, and that most council members can’t say they’ve dealt with “government bull” imposed on businesspeople.


“Small business is a minority, and if you’ve ever been part of a minority that couldn’t or wouldn’t be heard, you know what I’m talking about,” he said.


Bar and restaurant owners have threatened to sue the city if the ordinance passes, he said. The rules would be “reasonable” if done in conjunction with Bibb County, thus preventing customers from switching their business to nearby smoking establishments, Cranford said.


Councilwoman Beverly Blake asked colleagues to go ahead and override the veto, saying its backers were willing to hold two public meetings in the next 60 days to get public input for “fine-tuning” the ordinance before it went into effect Sept. 1.

Councilman Charles Jones scoffed at that, saying it was putting the cart before the horse to pass something and seek to fix it later; but Councilwoman Elaine Lucas accused opponents of foot-dragging by calling for joint action with Bibb County.


“I can smell a stall ... and you can, too,” she said.

After more in the same vein, Ficklin called for a vote. He, Cranford, Jones, Ed DeFore, James Timley and Virgil Watkins voted to uphold the mayor’s veto.


Council members Blake, Lauren Benedict, Nancy White, Tom Ellington, Paris, Larry Schlesinger, Lonnie Miley, Lucas and Rick Hutto voted to override the veto. Although that group of council members was in the majority, that left ordinance supporters one vote short of the two-thirds council majority to override a mayoral veto.

“The mayor’s veto is sustained,” Paris said.

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