There was an oddly interesting exchange, and an example perhaps of a double standard, the other day among our county government officials.
Emergency Services Director Pam Tucker and Animal Control Manager Linda Fulmer, ever since the Martinez incident with the house full of cats, have been reworking the county's animal-ownership ordinance.
Currently there are no limits on the number of cats or dogs (or ferrets or whatever) homeowners can have, as long as the pets are well-kept. Animal Control wanted to set a limit of six for homes in non-agricultural areas, and then require a kennel license for those with more animals.
It seemed easy enough -- until the county employees ran it past the elected officials. Particularly, Commission Tom Mercer -- whose district, by the way, includes the Springlakes home that had those 92 cats -- argued that existing county ordinances are strong enough.
Also, he said, such a rule could be an intrusion on private property rights.
Well. Remember, Mercer was the foremost cheerleader for the county's smoking ban. That ordinance, which went into effect in January, prohibits smoking in publicly accessible buildings -- including private property.
Even stranger, Columbia County's proposed animal ordinance would have been weaker than Grovetown's, which has a three-pet limit in the city. Yet Grovetown rejected the smoking ban altogether. Go figure.
What will Sonny do?
Meanwhile, both sides of the smoking debate are waiting to see what Gov. Sonny Perdue does with the ban enacted by the state Legislature. Perdue has until May 10 to sign or veto the bill, or he could let it take effect without his signature.
A poll this past week by the Atlanta paper shows 64 percent approval for the ban. That's similar to the results of an online poll conducted on The News-Times Web site, newstimesonline.com. (The site's poll currently is asking readers about the animal ordinance, by the way.)
If the ban goes into effect, it would apply statewide. That would boost Columbia County's ban by outlawing smoking inside most buildings in Harlem and Grovetown, removing their current status as smoking islands inside the county. And it would prevent smokers from going to Augusta to avoid the county's restrictions.
There could be even more problems for smokers if the state ban goes into effect. Here's why:
Local laws can be more restrictive than state law, but not less. So: Under the yet-to-be-approved state law, smokers can still light up in businesses that prohibit patrons younger than 18 -- but not in Columbia County, which allows no such exemption. Here, the stricter law would be in effect.
Conversely, Columbia County allows private clubs to apply for exemptions from the ban: smokers can light up at the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and West Lake Country Club, all of which have received exemptions from the county. The proposed state law has no such exemptions, so the stricter rule would snuff out cigarettes at the veterans' posts.
If that happens, state Sen. Jim Whitehead -- the only local lawmaker to vote against the state ban -- could also be the only local legislator not becoming public enemy No. 1 to the smoking veterans.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to barry.paschal at newstimesonline.com.)
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