Before Council Votes to Ban Smoking, a Lot of Smoke is Blown at City Hall

After nearly three hours of discussion, the city council wrapped up yesterday's briefing on the proposed strengthened smoking ordinance seemingly prepared to vote on the item at next week's agenda meeting. Council members appear poised to approve a ban on smoking in bars, pool halls and within 15 feet of public buildings at the December 10 meeting, with council members Jerry Allen and Steve Salazar emerging as potential advocates of expanding the ban to include smoking while driving with a child.

The briefing itself consisted of nothing more than City Smoking Ordinance Special Ad-Hoc Committee chair Pauline Medrano reading the previous committee decisions into the record, line by line. Then both sides were each given 20 minutes to state their case, with ordinance proponents trotting up Dr. John Warner, a cardiologist at UT-Southwestern Medical Center and president of the Dallas division of the American Heart Association; Sharon Barlow, a woman suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; and Claudia Flores Rodas, director of government relations for the Gulf Coast region of the American Cancer Society.

Opponents countered with Dr. John Dunn, Nick Alexander, president of Click's Billiards; and Mike Olander, district manager of Fox and Hound Pub and Grille. After time expired for the two sides, Mayor Tom Leppert then allowed for individuals to come up to the microphone to make a brief statement and put their names into the record. Fifteen proponents spoke, most of them wearing red shirts promoting Smoke-Free Dallas, and 16 opponents spoke, most of them wearing yellow shirts or stickers promoting business rights.

Allen asked Dr. Warner back to the mic when it was time for council discussion, which Leppert warned should be used for questions, with opinions held back for next week. Allen quickly seemed to be backtracking from his previous statements regarding the ordinance, such as, "That would lead me to believe that our current ordinance is OK." Find out Allen's new stance and much more after the jump.

Speaking to Warner, Allen said it's pretty much a given the council is going to ban smoking in bars and pool halls, which he referred to as "small potatoes." He asked Warner what he thought the next step should be for Dallas, to which Warner said he was happy with the ordinance being considered.

"As I look into and as I study secondhand smoke, I see child abuse over and over again," Allen said, asking for Warner's thoughts. Again Warner said the American Heart Association is concerned with smoke in the workplace, which is being addressed, so he was dismissed.

"This is an important issue," Allen said. "If it is about a smoke-free United States, a smoke-free Texas and a smoke-free Dallas, well, then, let's just move it forward and quit doing these baby steps along the way, because that's all this is is a baby step that I see. We haven't been in a whole lot of deep conversation."

He then tried to get Rodas of the American Cancer Society to bite, but she too said their concerns were being addressed by the ordinance already on the table. Salazar also tried to get her to commit regarding a stance on smoking with kids in the car, and Rodas said the American Cancer Society simply doesn't take a stand on what happens in private situations. Then Salazar took it further, asking City Attorney Tom Perkins if the council could legally restrict smoking in private residences where children are present.

"Golly, I don't know the answer to that question," Perkins responded.

That wasn't the only awkward position Perkins was in as, during a long rant about the issue, Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway asked him what he'd do if he saw someone with a gun pointed at their head, to which Perkins responded, "I don't know how to answer that question."

Caraway, who insisted both sides were presenting opposing viewpoints regarding the health risks of secondhand smoke, also asked Perkins to give an official position to the council on the matter. Perkins, who looked puzzled and amazed during Caraway's speech, was saved by Leppert, who interjected and told Caraway that Perkins was in no position to prove or disprove either claim.

Statistics regarding alcohol sales from Houston before and after its smoking ban were provided to council members. Both Carolyn Davis and Ron Natinsky said the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission numbers showed increased sales after the ban. However, Sheffie Kadane pointed out that those numbers were the overall sales and did not segregate out bars and pool halls.

Despite the numerous committee meetings, Tennell Atkins asked interim Assistant City Manager Forest Turner why there hadn't been more advertising of the issue, and Atkins even suggested having town hall meetings similar to the ones conducted for the city budget.

Dave Neumann said he's "very torn" about the issue and claimed he's received a lopsided response from his constituents. "Taking away individual rights really scares me," he said.

Vonciel Hill asked why the council was moving forward with the item considering there are members who are expressing reservations. "I hear significant unreadiness around this horseshoe."

As the meeting wrapped up, Leppert said the council needed to clearly define what will be considered a cigar bar at next week's meeting, and then it can either move forward with the new ordinance or vote to postpone it. He also awkwardly noted that Pauline Medrano had called him several times after committee meetings late at night "threatening to shoot me."

After the meeting, Mari Woodlief, president of Allyn & Company (representing Smoke-Free Dallas), told Unfair Park that polling data shows that if this item where taken to a referendum, it would be overwhelmingly supported by citizens at the polls. --Sam Merten

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Sam Merten
Contact: Sam Merten