Columbia County commissioners took a step closer to a smoking ban in public places on Wednesday, but their vote didn't come without threats of lawsuits from opponents and concerns from private club members.
Mike Pirtle, a member of the group Citizens Opposing Socialist Tyranny, said his organization would fight the proposed ban if it passes.
"I promise you faithfully we will fight this all the way to the Supreme Court," he told county commissioners while standing before a packed Evans Government Complex auditorium.
On Wednesday, Columbia County commissioners approved a first reading of the Columbia County Smoke Free Air Act of 2004 by a vote of 3-2, with Diane Ford and Lee Anderson against the ban.
"I am not a smoker, but I do believe this decision should be left up to each and every business owner," said Ford, who added her daughter has asthma.
Commissioners Steve Brown, Tommy Mercer and Chairman Ron Cross voted for the ban, saying they're looking out for the public's health.
"I don't think you have the right to breathe your smoke where other folks have to breathe," Mercer said.
A second reading of the ordinance is still set for the commission's next meeting on Aug. 31. But because of some fine details in the ordinance, some changes might be made then, causing the need of another first reading.
"The commissioners haven't agreed on if we want to look at exempting some private clubs and a couple of other issues the board of health has brought up to make it a little more clear," Cross said. "Something in there might have indicated that if you had a cigarette machine that qualified you as a cigarette store, and that was not the intent."
If the ordinance is changed Aug. 31, a second reading would have to take place at the commission's following meeting Sept. 21 before a final vote could occur. If passed, the ordinance would go into effect starting Jan. 1.
At Tuesday night's meeting, some residents already had questions about how the ban would be enforced and what its exceptions would be. For one thing, Cecil Holloway, of the American Legion, wondered if private organization such as his would fall under the ban, which does apply to restaurants and bars.
"If you deny the veterans in the place they have built, then I think you're wrong in that," he said, adding that members often smoke inside American Legion buildings.
Brown admitted the smoking ban ordinance doesn't explicitly address private institutions, but he would like to have the ordinance changed by the next commission meeting to allow smoking in such locations.
"The way I read it (the ordinance) is if it's a private club, it doesn't affect it," Brown said. "It's where you do business with the public, that's where our responsibility starts and where it ends."
But could such an exception cause more private clubs to spring up in the county simply to avoid the smoking ban?
"It might," Brown said. "But that would be a lot to go around just to avoid the demand. But that's their choice. If that's what they want to do, then so be it."
Other exemptions to the ordinance include private residences, hotel and motel rooms designated as smoking rooms so long as no more than 20 percent of the rooms are for smoking, retail tobacco stores and certain outdoor areas of employment. The ban does apply to restaurants and bars, licensed child and adult day care facilities, retail stores and public transit facilities and vehicles, including busses and taxi cabs.
On Tuesday, there also were questions about a rule that would require smokers to stay 25 feet away from public buildings. Some business owners told commissioners their building doesn't have that kind of room surrounding it because of nearby roads.
Then, there was the issue of enforcement.
"You're going to make every restaurant and bar owner a policeman," Pirtle said.
Although the ordinance states there would be a penalty for a violation of the ban, Brown said a warning would probably be given first to a business. Following that, a violation of the ban most likely would go to a magistrate court judge, who would decide how much the fine would be for the citation.
Brown also said that should the ban be approved, residents shouldn't expect to see a group of smoke police patrolling county restaurants and bars.
"I don't think we're going to go to Sheriff (Clay) Whittle's office and say 'Hey this restaurant has smoking,"' he said, adding that it would be up to customers to file complaints for enforcement of the ban.
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