Smoking ban splits Southwest Councilmembers

Two would prohibit smoking citywide; two lean that way and two say they will oppose new restrictions

A Minneapolis City Council ordinance to ban smoking citywide in bars and restaurants appears to have majority support even though it has not been formally introduced.

Supporters will propose the smoking ban at the Friday, May 14 Council meeting. A public hearing could be held as early as June 7 and the full Council could vote by June 18.

It takes seven of 13 Councilmembers to pass the ordinance. Six say they will back the plan and two others say that are leaning that way.

Announcing their support May 11 were Councilmembers Paul Zerby (2nd Ward), Don Samuels (3rd Ward); Natalie Johnson Lee (5th Ward); Dean Zimmermann (6th Ward); Gary Schiff (9th Ward); and Dan Niziolek (10th Ward).

Certain and probable no votes are councilmembers Paul Ostrow (1st Ward), Barb Johnson (4th Ward), Lisa Goodman (7th Ward), Sandy Colvin Roy (12th Ward) and Barret Lane (13th Ward), according to interviews and news accounts.

Councilmembers Robert Lilligren (8th Ward) and Scott Benson (11th Ward) say they are leaning toward supporting the bill.

Zimmermann, Nizolek, Goodman, Lane, Lilligren and Benson represent Southwest.

Swing vote Lilligren described himself variously as "inclined to support the ordinance," and "neutral." He said he wanted to learn more about both the health and economic impacts of ban and to hear from his constituents.

"I worked as a bartender for 20 years," said Lilligren, himself a nonsmoker. "It was always a concern of mine, the second-hand smoke I was exposed to on the job. I always felt I could work someplace else if I needed to. Although I wasn't wild about it, I was able to make an exception in my mind to the smoke-free environment."

Benson, the other swing vote, said he was "strongly leaning" toward supporting the ordinance. He recently attended an American Cancer Society donor recognition event as a motivational speaker, he said. Stephen Hecht of the University of Minnesota's Transdisciplinary Tobacco Use Research Center spoke on the effects of second-hand smoke.

The event was not tied to the proposed city smoking ban ordinance, Benson said, but "it went a long way to convincing me we should probably do it."

What will R.T. do?

The nose count puts Mayor R.T. Rybak in a powerful, if ticklish, situation. The Council could have seven or eight votes to pass the ordinance, but lack the nine votes needed to override his veto.

Rybak -- a self-described environmentalist and antismoker, is undecided.

The vote may seem like a mayoral no-brainer. Rybak drives a low-polluting hybrid car and touts the conversion of the Riverside coal plant to natural gas as a key air quality issue. He cut his political teeth fighting the Metropolitan Airports Commission on noise pollution and other environmental issues -- in spite of the potential economic consequences.

The mayor said he also had spent time trying to help small businesses and create jobs.

"My family ran a corner business," he said. "I wouldn't have liked somebody putting a restriction on my family that could have threatened that business and ruined our livelihood."

People already have begun stopping him during walks around Lake Harriet and registering their opinions, Rybak said. The smoking ban is important, he said, but not his top priority. He is focused on the budget, summer police strategy and the legislature's waning days.

The smoking ban arguments are straightforward, pro and con. Supporters focus on the negative health affects of second-hand smoke. Niziolek said the proposed law "isn't about a ban, but a work place issue. This is a public space issue."

Niziolek (an allergy sufferer who has problems with second-hand smoke) said some bar/restaurant owners had already begun to support the proposal, including Kim Bartmann of Bryant-Lake Bowl, 810 W. Lake St. (which currently allows smoking).

Opponents focus on potential business that would be lost to other communities. Some say government should not intrude on private business or personal decisions. Others say they prefer a statewide policy -- not a hodgepodge of city actions.

The momentum for city action appears to be growing. The St. Paul City Council is already considering a similar ordinance. One Minneapolis City Hall insider said Bloomington smoking ban backers would introduce their version soon.

Phone calls and e-mails began to deluge Council staff following a Star Tribune story on behind-the-scenes ordinance work.

"The number of people writing to say they support the ban is starting to rival the spam I am getting on Viagra," Zimmermann said.

Zimmermann said the smoking ban represented the "greater public good."

On the other side, Colvin Roy said she doesn't think there is an adult in the country who isn't aware of smoking's dangers. Patrons and business owners should make up their own minds.

"I don't like government meddling," she said.

Lane said he was "not inclined" to vote for the ban, which he said would have "anticompetitive impacts" for city restaurants and bars unless applied statewide.

Ostrow and the mayor said they wanted to give business owners ample time to testify how the ordinance would affect them. Rybak said the proposed vote timeline "seems about right."