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GF smoking ban passes first reading

A smoking ban that would end the exemption for bars, casinos and truck stops in Grand Forks passed one of two City Council votes on Monday. The issue was extremely divisive for council members, mostly on philosophical grounds. Three times they we...

A smoking ban that would end the exemption for bars, casinos and truck stops in Grand Forks passed one of two City Council votes on Monday.

The issue was extremely divisive for council members, mostly on philosophical grounds. Three times they were split evenly, requiring Mayor Mike Brown to make break ties. He has almost never had to do this and certainly not three times on one issue.

If the council again passes the ordinance at its April 5 meeting, the smoking ban would take effect Nov. 1.

In the two key votes Monday, the mayor not only had to break the ties, but two council members defected to the other side in each case.

The meeting was well attended by smoking opponents, rallied by the Tobacco Free Coalition and by bar owners, many of whom believe their livelihood was at stake because many of their patrons are smokers.

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Smoking opponents were particularly emotional, with some losing their composure as they recalled loved ones who they said suffered because of smoking or of secondhand smoke.

Bar owners spoke little, seemingly recognizing that the tide had turned against them this year, unlike 2005 when they managed to persuade the council to exempt them from a smoking ban.

Ultimately, the pro-ban side prevailed, moving the proposed law to a final vote April 5. The law would take effect Nov. 1 if passed.

Call for a ballot

The arguments in the debate were well worn, having been expressed in 2005 and in earlier council discussions. But on Monday, they appeared to reach their boiling point as both sides pulled out all the stops, throwing out appeals to emotion and logic and even political threats.

The first big argument revolved around whether to put the issue on the ballot.

A recent survey commissioned by the Tobacco Free Coalition found that 75 percent of Grand Forks adults favor banning smoking in bars, 75 percent favored banning it in casinos and 83 percent favored banning it in truck stops.

Council member Doug Christensen and others who support a public vote say that if it's such a foregone conclusion, smoking opponents should not be afraid of a vote. "It doesn't hurt to respect the rights of minorities," he said. Fargo and Minot both held votes before they went smoke free, he said.

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Tony Kvasager, owner of Big Daddy's bar, asked why seven council members should make the decision for everyone. If the council wants to make decisions for his business, he said, it should take over his loans. With the exception of one council member, he said, he's never seen any of the rest at Big Daddy's to support him.

Decide already

Smoking opponents would much rather the council passed the law.

The practical effect of a ballot issue is that it would force them to engage in a political campaign to rally their people. But the argument made was the council should make the decision because that's what members were elected to do.

Dr. Eric Johnson, who advises the state's Tobacco Quit Line, said the council addresses public health issues all the time without a public vote. It doesn't, for example, put the mosquito control budget on the ballot, he said.

Council member Art Bakken said the ballot is the easy way out. The council is empowered to make decisions because it often has access to more information than the public, he said.

It's not unprecedented, of course, that the council should refer controversial issues to a vote of the people.

In 2008, for example, the council referred to a public vote the renovation of Riverside Pool, which was on the wrong side of the new dike system and was expected to require a subsidy. Council members Bakken, Christensen, Mike McNamara and Kreun voted "yes." Council members Hal Gershman and Eliot Glassheim and then-interim council member Bill Hutchison voted "no."

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The pool won by a landslide, with 66 percent of the vote.

Purity of principle

The other big argument was whether to pass the smoking ban and what would go into it. Here was where the emotions and the logical twists and turns came into play.

Council member Terry Bjerke tried to demonstrate the council's hypocrisy by demanding that it extend the ban to include all tobacco products in city limits.

McNamara sided with him, saying that the reason the council won't do that is because it collects tax dollars on tobacco products and because the bars are too small a minority to put up a serious fight. If the movers and shakers of Grand Forks were bar owners, he said, it'd be a different matter.

There was audible sneering from the left side of the room where most of the smoking opponents sat.

Johnson said it was about saving lives -- he claimed that a person dies of secondhand smoke every three to four days in North Dakota -- and the economic damage from that is greater than the taxes collected.

Jim Whitehead, a physical education professor at UND, complained that council members were putting up "frivolous votes" instead of getting down to business.

Bjerke assumed this was directed at him and replied: "I will not retreat from my intellectually honest position."

In any case, only he and McNamara voted for the total ban.

Hurt, anger

The emotional appeal came from both sides.

Several smoking opponents, their voices shaking with emotion, told of the pain their parents and grandparents suffered because of tobacco.

Jennifer Verlinde said her grandfather had died of cancer when she was young and, a few years ago, her grandmother died of lung cancer at age 83, even though she'd given up smoking for 30 years. Smoking causes irreversible harm, she said, and the council should hear more personal stories like hers to understand.

Bjerke replied later that his wife has had emphysema from a young age likely because her parents smoked. That's not very different than some of the victims described by smoking opponents, but he said he voted as he did because "this is an issue of principle for me."

McNamara, seeing that the council would likely pass a smoking ban in spite of his opposition, told bar owners that it should, essentially, not trust the council's vote. If they invested money in their businesses to follow new rules -- referring to the ban allowing smoking patios for bar patrons -- because in 24 to 36 months, they'll just be back here again when the council changes its mind as it evidently did between 2005 and now.

Reach Tran at (701) 780-1248; (800) 477-6572, ext. 248; or send e-mail to ttran@gfherald.com .

Related Topics: GRAND FORKS CITY COUNCIL
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