Columbus Council makes changes to controversial smoking ban ordinance

Overwhelmed with the task of crafting an ordinance that would ban smoking throughout the city, Columbus Council decided Tuesday to research the topic for another 60 days.

The decision came after a lengthy discussion about aspects of the proposed ordinance that some councilors found disconcerting, such as banning smoking at adult-only establishments.

In the process, councilors removed several provisions from the latest version of the document submitted Tuesday by city attorneys.

Sitting in the council chamber were dozens of concerned citizens on both sides of the issue. The crowd consisted of business owners, health officials, restaurant employees and clean air advocates.

Councilor Judy Thomas opened the discussion with a motion to delete about five pages containing health information concerning second-hand smoke from the Surgeon General and other sources.

“This is not something that we typically have in our ordinances and I’m not sure it serves any purpose in this one,” she said.

City Attorney Clifton Fay, who drafted the ordinance at the request of Thomas and other councilors, said the preamble was never intended to be codified in the law. Instead, it was included only as background information for the general public, Fay said, and he suggested that it remain in the document.

But Thomas pushed for the removal, and the motion passed without opposition. Councilors Jerry “Pops” Barnes, Glenn Davis and Mike Baker were absent from Tuesday’s meeting.

Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said the background information would be placed in the clerk’s records.

Councilors, at Thomas’ suggestion, also removed two items that would’ve allowed employees and private citizens to bring legal action to enforce the ordinance or apply for injunctive relief.

They later voted to change a section that would have exempted bars that installed air handling systems prior to Jan. 1 of this year, moving the date to Jan. 1, 2019. That motion was made by Councilor Gary Allen.

“Encroachment on business rights and people’s rights to open a business, that’s what concerns me,” he said. “How far are we going with this?”

Allen asked City Attorney Clifton Fay how the proposed ordinance differed from state law, and Fay said it was more restrictive.

That’s when Allen made the motion to delay the first reading for 60 days. Councilor Evelyn “Mimi” Woodson seconded the motion, and it passed without opposition.

“I’m just in (agreement) to delay because, I don’t know about anybody else, but I’ve gotten tons and tons of emails and I’m printing them out and laying them all over the floor trying to compare what is being said,” Woodson said. “And I’m a little uncomfortable on which direction I’m going. So that’s why I agree with Gary to go ahead and delay it.”

Councilors Skip Henderson and Walker Garrett also expressed concerns about the ordinance.

Thomas said she was in favor of the delay, but she didn’t want citizens to think council was dropping the issue.

“Just because we’re delaying it 60 days doesn’t mean it’s gone,” she said. “I just want to make sure everybody realizes we are coming back with this in some format. And if it comes back on first reading, citizens will have the opportunity to address it.”

During public comments, Onjewel Smith of the Americans for Nonsmokers Rights for the Southern United States asked councilors to reconsider the revisions.

“We can’t with a good heart and a good conscience support an ordinance that has so many exemptions; that will still put people in harms way,” she said. “We really ask you to consider a strong ordinance, to go back to the model, to really remember who you started talking about this for, to protect the hard-working citizens of Columbus.”

Earlier in the meeting, Thomas expressed concern about a section that would require businesses to post “No Smoking” signs “clearly and conspicuously” at appropriate locations. She also asked for more details about how the ordinance would be enforced.

Fay said the Georgia Department of Public Health recently contacted the local health department, offering to pay for stickers and signs alerting the public about non-smoking areas.

The smoking ban can be enforced by any enforcement officer with the Columbus Department of Public Health, special enforcement officer, or any sworn law enforcement officer, according to the ordinance.

Fay said law enforcement officers with the local health department would enforce the ordinance as part of their routine inspections. Beverly Townsend, commissioner of health for the Columbus Department of Public Health, confirmed the arrangement.

Jean O’Connor, chronic disease prevention director with the Georgia Department of Public Health, also attended the meeting. She said state health officials would help Columbus with a public education campaign if the ordinance is adopted.

O’Connor said tobacco-use and second-hand smoke exposure are the leading cause of preventable death in our state, contributing to more than 11,500 premature deaths each year. Three thousand of those are second-hand smoke related deaths.

“One hundred percent smoke-free environments are the healthiest option for the people of the state of Georgia,” she said. “In addition, there is considerable evidence that smoke-free laws have no effect, or a positive effect, on business revenues in localities that have comprehensive smoke-free ordinances.”

Alva James-Johnson: 706-571-8521, @amjreporter