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Smoking-ban demonstration set for Monday

By Evan Belanger ˇ 340-2442

It's not about smoking. It's about local business owners' right to choose.

That's the unofficial rallying cry for a planned demonstration to protest the city's new ban on smoking in public places.

According to an event permit issued this week by the Decatur Police Department, the demonstration will run from 3 to 6 p.m. Monday at City Hall. The permit lists an "unknown number of participants" and requires demonstrators stand in a bricked area around the flagpoles in front of the building.

But a flier for the rally being circulated at local businesses states 300 to 500 demonstrators are needed to "stand united against tyranny." All are invited to participate.

City Council session

Event planners say they will also attend a City Council work session immediately following the rally and will use the meeting's public comment phase to share with the council members their dislike of the smoking ordinance.

"I honestly hope that the City Council will think about what they've done," said Judy Jones, who applied for the event permit this week. "You just don't have three men who should be able to go out there and dictate to business owners what they can and cannot do when it's not illegal."

Jones is an employee at Hard Dock Café and at The Brick Deli and Tavern. She said business at both restaurants has declined dramatically since the ordinance took effect Oct. 1, hurting owners and their employees who work mostly on tips.

She said employees from several local businesses are expected to participate in the rally, along with some business owners.

Owners at The Brick and Hard Dock said Wednesday they will not officially participate in the rally but they have no problem with their employees choosing to do so.

"I know my bartenders have been complaining that they've been losing a lot of money. It's kind of hard for them to take care of their families," said Steve Conner, owner of Hard Dock. "I feel like they should do what they feel they need to."

Others expected to participate in the rally include Felicia Moody, part owner of Tony's Country Cooking in Decatur.

Moody and some of her employees chose to leave a council meeting last week, when Council President Billy Jackson ordered them to put away homemade signs critical of the ordinance. Jackson said the signs posed an unwarranted distraction for others at the meeting.

"It's not just about the ordinance. It's about the rights of the citizens being violated and the ordinance all together," Moody said.

In response to news of Monday's rally, Jackson said he has no problem with the demonstration or public comments during the council's work session.

"The fact of the matter is we welcome the public's comments. We always have," he said.

But Jackson also said he will not let the meeting turn into a circus, nor will he allow several speakers to say essentially the same thing.

"I don't think it serves any practical purpose for people to get up and say the same thing as the person in front of them," Jackson said.

As to signs at the meeting, Jackson said he would allow them, but they cannot be displayed in a manner that distracts others at the meeting.

The council's rules and procedures ordinance gives Jackson full authority to "maintain order" during council meetings. It authorizes him to remove people who refuse to comply with his directions.

Decatur's ban on public smoking has been a hot-topic issue since the council approved the measure 3-2 on Aug. 6. It bans smoking in all public places, including bars, restaurants, offices and any place with employees.

While representatives of some locally owned restaurants say the ordinance is hurting their business, most managers at larger chain restaurants report business has stayed the same or improved since Oct. 1.

Jackson conceded Wednesday that bar business has declined, but, he said, overall business at local restaurants seems to be growing with more people going out to enjoy the smoke-free dining.

Determining if the ordinance is having a long-term negative effect on local businesses will take more time, he said.

Jackson compared Decatur's public smoking ban to laws requiring drivers and their passengers to wear safety belts. He noted fewer people complained about those life-saving laws.

"We're looking at a health and public welfare issue," he said. "And ultimately, it saves lives and has a positive impact on our community."

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