Daily photos by Gary Cosby Jr.|
Demonstrators against Decatur’s smoking ban line the sidewalk on Lee Street Monday in front of City Hall during Monday’s protest.
Smoking over the smoking ban
Opponents mount 3-hour protest at City Hall seeking referendum; councilmen unimpressed
By Evan Belanger
Three city councilmen responsible for Decatur’s ban on public smoking said they were sympathetic to the demands of residents angry about it.
But they remain resolved to keep it in place without compromise.
Their statements came after roughly 48 residents and business owners gathered forces Monday, staging a three-hour protest in front of City Hall. Rally participants said they hoped to make the councilmen reconsider.
Representatives said the law is detrimental to local businesses and a violation of their freedoms as Americans.
“All we want is for them to be fair and give us our rights and let us vote on this thing,” said Greg Maples of Decatur. “If that’s not a dictatorship, I don’t know what is.”
Carrying signs and wearing T-shirts and visors emblazoned with language criticizing the ban, demonstrators lined the sidewalk, cheering each time a passing vehicle gave a supportive honk.
Diane McCandless demonstrates what Monday’s demonstration on Lee Street was about
“We’re not here to protest as smokers,” said Judy Jones, an organizer. “This is about our rights as people.
“If this had been put to a referendum and we lost, then none of us would be out here right now.”
About 24 from the original group also attended the City Council’s regular work session immediately following the protest.
Located on the seventh floor of Decatur City Hall, the meeting room afforded just 37 seats for all attending, forcing a number of high-ranking city officials to stand — including Mayor Don Kyle.
Thirteen of the demonstrators used the meeting’s public-comment phase to address the council. They said the smoking ban may be illegal, and discussed its impact on businesses and whether secondhand smoke — or smoking in general — actually constitutes a health risk.
“I am asking this council to please reconsider and leave room for compromise,” said JoAnn Westfall of Decatur.
Other comments included personal attacks against the three men who passed the ordinance.
In an emotional statement, Tony Hill, part owner of Tony’s Country Cooking, said the smoking ban is one of many “stunts this council has pulled.” He vowed to campaign against several councilmen and the mayor in the next election.
“If you are so confident that the majority welcomes the smoking ban, then let’s put it to a vote,” he said. “Stop treating the citizens of Decatur like they’re stupid, and stop taking away their rights to choose.”
But of the three councilmen who passed the ordinance Aug. 6, all said they were not deterred by the protesters and they have no intention of lifting the ban.
“I thought people made some really excellent points, but people who don’t smoke have rights, too,” said District 2 City Councilman David Bolding.
City Council President Billy Jackson and District 4 Councilman Ronny Russell said they thought the health risks associated with exposure to secondhand smoke outweighed any other concerns.
‘That’s what we do’
“We’re elected as representatives of the people to make tough decisions,” Jackson said. “Not everyone likes them, but that’s what we do.”
Russell, who first proposed the smoking ordinance, said employees at local businesses should be able to do their jobs without being exposed to smoke, and a full ban was the only way to ensure that happened.
District 3 Councilman Gary Hammon, who fought the ordinance when it was first proposed, remained quiet Monday. District 5 Councilman Ray Metzger, who also opposed it, did not.
In a five-minute speech directed at Russell, Metzger predicted the smoking ban, in conjunction with a sales-tax increase passed in 2001, would severely harm Decatur’s small businesses.
He also said the ordinance is a violation of the mayor’s powers and that the law could increase drunk driving in Decatur because people are traveling to bars in other cities.
Decatur’s ban on public smoking has been a hot issue since the council approved the measure 3-2.
It bans smoking in all public places, including bars, restaurants, offices and any place with employees.
The law took effect Oct. 1.
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