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Council Vote Reignites Smoking Ban Debate

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One week before the city’s strict ban on smoking becomes law, two of its strongest supporters on the City Council have backed away, claiming they made a mistake.

An attempt by the two councilmen to water down the law was defeated by a 3-2 vote Monday night, and the law will go into effect March 5.

Councilman Joseph E. Cvetko, who first suggested that the council adopt a 100% ban on smoking in restaurants, and Councilman John Ansdell said at a council meeting this week that the smoking ban was hastily passed and is unfair.

“We’ve done wrong,” Ansdell said.

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Ansdell and Cvetko asked fellow council members to amend the law to allow restaurant owners to set aside at least 20% of their seating for smokers. Cvetko recommended that restaurants also install exhaust fans. The two councilmen also asked that restaurant owners be granted 30 days to comply with the ordinance.

The proposal to change the law came at the end of the council meeting and infuriated the other council members. Cvetko said he will raise the issue again at a later meeting.

“Cvetko has gone completely nuts,” Councilman William J. Pendleton said.

Pendleton, Mayor Randy Bomgaars and Councilman Bob Stone said they knew Ansdell was having doubts. Ansdell has mentioned more than once that he thought all restaurant owners should have been notified by letter that the council was considering a 100% ban on smoking in restaurants.

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But Councilman Stone, who first urged the council to consider some sort of smoking ban in the city, said he does not understand why Cvetko is now backpedaling on the issue.

“If I had to sit back and say, ‘That’s the one who is going to sway,’ I never would have picked Cvetko,” Stone said. “I never would have thought he was the weak link.”

Pendleton and Mayor Bomgaars said it is quite clear why Cvetko waffled on the issue: He is up for reelection next April and is afraid that his stand would cost him votes.

Cvetko, who has said for years that he is a “public servant and not a politician,” denied the charges.

“That’s an absolute falsehood,” he said. “I mulled it over and thought to myself, ‘Gee, maybe we did go too far.’ None of the other cities is doing anything like this, and the recession is hurting our restaurant guys economically. The smoking ban really puts our guys at a disadvantage, and I don’t want to hurt them. ‘Live and let live’ is what I say.”

But Bomgaars, Stone and Pendleton said they have gone too far to drop the ordinance at this point without giving it a try.

“If it doesn’t work, if there is a problem, and restaurants are hurt, I’ll be the first to say I made a mistake,” Bomgaars said.

Ansdell said that by then it may be too late and some restaurant owners will be closing for lack of customers.

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“How long are we going to wait; where are we going to draw the line?” Ansdell asked.

The City Council has been debating some form of a smoking ordinance in the city for the past three months. Council members said they were concerned about the effects of secondhand smoke on nonsmokers and said the health of nonsmokers should be protected. In December, the council settled on a law that would require restaurant owners to set aside 80% of their seating for nonsmokers. Smoking also will be prohibited in all enclosed building in which the public congregates, with the exception of private homes, offices, places of worship, bars and tobacco stores.

During the December meeting, council members began debating the effectiveness of forcing small restaurants to set aside 20% of their seating. Councilman Cvetko suggested that the council “go all the way” and ban smoking outright. The plan received quick and unanimous parlors, pool halls, and bowling alleys are still allowed to smoke. “It’s only fair” to give restaurant owners some leeway, he said.

Restaurant owner Lou Galasso, who has been fighting the ban since it was first discussed in December, said that by giving exemptions and partial exemptions to some businesses, the council was guilty of “picking and choosing.”

“It wasn’t fair,” he said. “The whole thing was just breaking down.”

But Stone, Bomgaars and Ansdell said that no one has been given special exemptions, and suggested that if the critics were to read the law, they would see that nothing has been changed.

Rudy Cole, the executive vice president of a Los Angeles-based restaurant lobby association, greeted the news that Cvetko and Ansdell had changed their minds with a cheery “Well, that’s two.”

“The restaurant owners have spent a lot of time with the council, and they succeeded in demonstrating that this is a terrible time to be doing something like this,” he said.

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He said that his association, the Restaurants for Sensible Voluntary Policy (On Smoking) will ask the council to amend the ordinance to allow restaurant owners to set aside only 50% of their seating for nonsmokers. But, he said, the 50-50 law would go hand in hand with a law that would require restaurant owners to accommodate nonsmokers first. The “flex program” would require restaurant owners to expand their nonsmoking area once it is filled.

Cole will not be able to bring his plans before the council until the March 11 meeting, six days after the smoking ban goes into effect.


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