OJAI : City Rejects Plea to Relax Smoking Rule

A proposal to relax Ojai's far-reaching anti-smoking ordinance was rejected by the City Council this week, despite pleas from citizens and restaurant owners to change the strict new law.

Ojai's ban on smoking, which was adopted last December, goes beyond restrictions adopted by other Ventura County cities by prohibiting smoking in outdoor eating areas.

That aspect of the ordinance, restaurant owners say, hurts their livelihood.

City staff decided to bring the issue back before the council after numerous complaints from residents and restaurateurs. In addition, nine of 14 local restaurant owners surveyed by the Chamber of Commerce said they wanted a smoking section in outdoor areas. But only four of the 14 entrepreneurs blamed the smoking ban for driving away customers.

"It's hurting me, it's hurting the city," said Antonio Aguilera, owner of Antonio's restaurant, at the council meeting. In a letter to the city, Aguilera said the ban has had a "devastating effect" on his business, resulting in about a 30% loss of revenue.

But at the meeting, council members questioned whether the ordinance or the recession was responsible for the decline in restaurants' revenues.

"I don't want to see anyone suffer a loss of business," Mayor Pro Tem Nina Shelley said during the meeting. "But I think if we start eroding this ordinance, it would be a mistake."

After a heated discussion of health issues associated with secondhand smoke, the council voted 3 to 2 to leave the ordinance as it is.

"Smoke does not know the difference between smoking and nonsmoking areas," Mayor Joe DeVito said. "I would not support changing (the ordinance) at this time and that is for health reasons."

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