Austin Smoking Ban Considered Today
Don't expect a vote to occur until past 2pm. The ordinance and other similiar kinds of activities aren't set to be addressed on the City Council agenda until 1:30pm and the smoking code is 17th on a list of 60 things to do.
There are promising signs that the new restrictions may be in for some trouble, however.
Members raced well past rush hour to shape the ordinance before a final vote, scheduled for today. By nightfall, with all the moving pieces parked at least until morning, the proposal to ban smoking in bars and music venues seemed to be unraveling.
But no one was really sure.
"There's a lot of balls in the air. We'll have to talk some more tomorrow," said Mayor Gus Garcia, who has led the charge toward a smoking ban. "For tonight, I'm going to let them think this thing through."
For weeks, the council has been split 4-3 over the proposal. Those seeking to derail or at least delay the ban -- council members Raul Alvarez, Jackie Goodman and Will Wynn -- have been left to dig for a fourth vote.
Earlier this week, Goodman and Alvarez proposed a last-minute resolution that would kick the whole issue to a new task force. Wynn, who will replace Garcia as mayor, has suggested putting off a vote until the new council is seated in two weeks.
But the chase didn't really begin until Wednesday, when the majority started to crack.
First was Council Member Danny Thomas, who said he favored a ban in restaurants. But like opponents of the measure, he feared the economic impact on bars, including music venues.
I like Wynn's idea because I think it's more likely the proposal would get voted down in a new city council, though that depends on the outcome of the runoff between Margot Clarke (supports the ordinance) and Brewster McCracken (opposes it). I do think McCracken has an electoral edge (PDF) since he won 40.66% of the vote to Clarke's 33.26%. Of course, votes that went to other candidates will now make the difference.
Then, a half-hour before the supposed close of city business, Council Member Daryl Slusher suggested putting the item on the November ballot. Voters will probably decide the fate of a Travis County health care district the same day, he said, and a referendum would pre-empt efforts by a future council or irate petition-signers to undo whatever comes out of today's meeting.
The proposal sent both sides scrambling.
Club owners who fear a financial hit initially cheered, then started worrying that non-smokers who make up a majority of Austinites might win at the polls.
Yeah, I wouldn't leave this up to a citywide vote. Rights are too important to be left up to a democratic process to destroy.
Health groups, who have long said a ban is the only way to protect employees from second-hand smoke, warned that tobacco companies might spend freely on an election that would keep their wares burning in Austin bars.
The health groups blinked first. Shortly after 5 p.m. Wednesday, supporters of a total ban told Garcia that they would rather see an exemption for bars than an election on the whole ordinance.
The "only way"? What about business owners choosing - on their own or with employee input - to prohibit smoking on their property? Is this concept completely alien to some people???
And I wouldn't support even a lesser increase in restrictions. That isn't the freakin' point at contention here.
But about that time, Slusher was meeting with City Manager Toby Futrell and City Attorney Sedora Jefferson. They were checking Austin's City Charter to see whether it's legal for the council to call an election on a smoking ordinance: an item that does not amend the charter itself or authorize tax-supported bond debt.
It turns out it's not. At least it appeared that way late Wednesday night.
"This doesn't look too good, if the city attorneys are saying we can't do it," Slusher said a little after 6 p.m. "It just shows that we're trying to look at every possible approach."
Nice to hear. Of course, Mr. Slusher, you could just shelve the damn idea permanently and move on.
The proposal already has more exceptions than Garcia would like.
I hate you, Gus Garcia.
The council voted 4 to 3, with Mayor elect Will Wynn, Councilmember Raul Alvarez, and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman voting against the ordinance.
Thursday night was the third and final reading.
Before the vote, Alvarez proposed an amendment that would exempt bars from the ban.
The council voted against the amendment.
The ordinance goes into effect in September.
The ordinance does not take effect until Sept. 1, meaning a new council might still have time to overturn it. Council Member Will Wynn, who voted against the ordinance, will soon become mayor, replacing Garcia, who steps down next month. Saturday's runoff election to replace Wynn pits Brewster McCracken, who opposes the regulations, against Margot Clarke, who favors them.
Wynn said he expects the next council to take the ordinance up again. The council also formed a task force to report back on the issue in August.
Will Wynn, Raul Alvarez, and Jackie Goodman voted against the proposal.
Well, I'm angry but not surprised. To expect property rights and self-ownership to be respected in the face of public health and workers' rights socialism is probably a little too optimisitic in this city. Not much else for me to say.
How the city plans to enforce this:
The ban will be enforced on a complaint basis, handled by Health and Human Services.
Any person caught violating the ban can be fined up to $2,000 and an establishment could have its operating license revoked.
Good news: the Austin Smoking Task Force Report is in and it's definitely worth your read.
The ban, initially scheduled to take affect on May 1st, has been posponed:
The city of Austin's new smoking ordinance will likely be postponed a month until June 1. The main reason is to give restaurants more time to show they've improved their air quality.
Dan McClusky's owner Steve Batlin lucked out. His restaurant has always had a separate room for non-smokers and smokers.
"I really don't think it's necessary. I'm a non-smoker myself. I think it's coming," Batlin said.
The new smoking ordinance is coming, but now it may be one month later. Before they get a smoking permit, restaurants must show they have dual ventilation systems. Lots of business owners installed them to meet the previous ordinance, but the city didn't keep a list.
Copyright ©2004TWEAN News Channel of Austin, L.P. d.b.a. News 8 Austin
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