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Wausau Daily Herald
October 24, 2004
Section: Local
Page: 1A

Smoking ban in voters' hands
Rick LaFrombois

Council members say they'll follow residents' will


The Nov. 2 referendum on a proposed ban on smoking in restaurants is not binding under the law. But it is binding, at least if you listen to Wausau's City Council members.

All but one of the 10 City Council members questioned by the Daily Herald last week said they would do what the voters want.

Nevertheless, questions remain unanswered about the proposed ban on smoking in restaurants, largely because the City Council provided little guidance on the issue before voting to poll the public.

The ban is being pushed by a group of activists called FreshAir.

The unanswered questions include how the city will define what is a restaurant and what is a tavern; who would enforce a prohibition on smoking; the nature of any penalties; the precise effects of secondhand smoke; and how to cope with the potential economic impact of a ban. Those questions remain as residents prepare to go to the polls Nov. 2.

"I don't know what the answers are," said Kevin Korpela, 37, a Wausau architect.

He's sure there's solid evidence that links secondhand smoke to negative health effects, but he also wonders what a ban on smoking would do to a business owner's income.

"Is it really advisable to add another regulation because of a particular health detraction?" Korpela said. "Maybe we should continue the discussion."

Not so, says City Council member Jim Rosenberg, who said he thinks most residents have already made up their minds on the issue.

Like most City Council members, Rosenberg would not offer an opinion about the proposed smoking ban because he plans to side with the majority of voters in his district, whether he agrees with them or not.

Council member Jim Brezinski said voters are responsible for educating themselves about the proposed smoking ban.

"We ought to keep our eyes on the prize, and that's the opinion of each and every voter," Brezinski said. "Democracy isn't for lazy people. It's a lot of work if you do it well."

Residents fall into two camps.

Some think government should regulate businesses as little as possible. Others, however, think that secondhand smoke endangers public health and that the city should therefore ban smoking in at least some public places.

Council member Christine Van De Yacht believes the less regulation, the better. She is the only council member polled last week who would not commit to following the voters' wishes.

"I'm hoping they don't want government in their lives, so I'm hoping it doesn't come to that," she said. "I will be disappointed if they support this - increasing government regulation. I'm a small-business owner. I don't want the city of Wausau regulating my workplace."

Council member Aaron Baumgardt thinks that secondhand smoke is a public health issue, and he supports a ban on smoking. He will, however, follow the lead of the voters, even if they say they don't want smoking banned.

"Right now, I think it's going to be overwhelming to ban smoking," Baumgardt said. "What I'd like to see is a countywide (ban), so the local restaurants don't get penalized, but I don't think that's going to happen."

Some restaurant owners fear that if smoking is banned some patrons will drive to a nearby community that does not ban smoking. Wausau is the only municipality in Marathon County considering a ban on smoking.

For most businesses within the city limits, it's pretty clear which is a restaurant and which is not.

Some businesses, however, defy definition, such as the Black Steer Bar & Dining on Stewart Avenue, which relies on both alcohol and food sales for its business.

Juanita Arrowood, owner of the Black Steer, said a ban on smoking would definitely hurt her business. And if FreshAir has its way, smoking probably would be banned at Black Steer Bar & Dining.

Mary Kay Rudolph, coordinator of the anti-tobacco organization, wants a definition of a restaurant to include any business that earns 30 percent or more of its gross income from food. Thus, even if alcohol sales account for as much as 70 percent of Arrowood's income, her business still would be considered a restaurant.

Arrowood is not sure how much income she grosses from food compared with alcohol. One thing is certain, however: Many of her patrons are smokers.

She allows them to smoke in a portion of her dining room, but most wait until after dinner to light up at the bar, she said. Arrowood has installed air filtration systems in the Black Steer's dining room and bar.

"You tell me why the right of a smoker shouldn't be protected?" she said. "I think this smoking ban interferes with a person's right to make a living. If this is going to hurt my business, who's going to make up the difference - who's going to give us a tax break?"

Dave Verick, owner of the Cop Shoppe Pub on Washington Street and president of the Marathon County Tavern League, said the issue is freedom of choice.

"If people don't want to go into a restaurant that has smoking, don't go," he said.

Many establishments already ban smoking because that is what patrons want. But if FreshAir gets its way, and the city bans smoking in restaurants, it's only a matter of time before FreshAir proposes a ban on smoking in bars, Verick said.

The Tavern League opposes the ban, but Verick has worked with Rudolph to draft a proposed ordinance that the City Council could adopt in the event voters approve a ban.

They agree on most details, except on the definition of a restaurant. Verick said he thinks that a business should have to earn 70 percent or more of its gross income from food before it is considered a restaurant.

If a ban is enacted, and a restaurant can prove that it has suffered an undue hardship, say the loss of 20 percent or more of gross income, that restaurant could seek an exemption from the ban, Rudolph said. Verick would like a lower percentage, between 10 percent and 15 percent.

If the public votes for a smoking ban, however, the City Council will have to decide the details.

"If they want a ban, we're going to have to decide," said City Council member Jean Radtke.

She said Wausau would likely look to other communities for guidance.

As for who would enforce a ban, Radtke said, it would be up to restaurant owners.

"You're going to have to take the people for their word, because you can't have the police department running all the time to their places," she said.

But if it were up to her, Wausau residents would not even be considering a ban.

"My opinion from day one has been (that) I think it should be up to the business if they want to go smoking or nonsmoking," Radtke said. But, "if (residents) want a ban, that's what they're going to get."

[Edit by Korpela: side-bar shown below...]

On the record

By law, the Nov. 2 referendum on whether to ban smoking in restaurants is not binding, but it is if you listen to the words of City Council members. Nine out of 10 polled by the Daily Herald said regardless of their opinion, they will follow the directive of the majority of residents in their district.

Jim Rosenberg, Jean Radtke, Jim Brezinski, Marty Welles, Gary Klingbeil, Karen Kellbach, Jodi Kraus, Aaron Baumgardt and Ed Gale all said they would follow the directive of voters based on the referendum results. Christine Van De Yacht did not commit to following voters' decision, and Deb Hadley and Gary Siewert could not be reached by telephone.

For the record, here are some of their comments:

Jim Rosenberg, District 1

"I will vote with my district, and if they pass it by one vote, I will vote in favor of it, and if they defeat it by one vote, I will vote against it."

Jean Radtke, District 3

"If they want a ban, that's what they are going to get. Not what I want."

Jim Brezinski, District 4

"I think we ought to have a smoking ban. I intend to vote that way, but if the community comes out against a (ban), then that's the way I would vote."

Karen Kellbach, District 8

"I obviously will vote with my district. I believe that's what they elected me to do. The majority will rule, and that's the way to go."

Ed Gale, District 12

"As their elected official, I have no choice. There is no room for discussion. There is nothing to challenge. When they have spoken, I am obligated to represent what they have spoken."

[Korpela's notation: another side-bar shown below...]

What people say

Brian Kruse, 42 ,of Antigo, owner of Liberty Bell Coin Investments in Wausau

"I don't know for sure. I'm not a smoker, so I prefer people don't, but as long as they got their section they can keep smoke out of my nose."

May Mha Thao, 18, of Wausau

"I think yes. I think the restaurants have babies or kids there - it's not good."

Kristi Gumz, 32, of Wausau

"I'm not a smoker, and smoking just bothers me. I'd welcome (a ban). I'd just rather be without the smoke."

Jay Kronenwetter, 24, of Madison, who plans to move back to Wausau after graduating from law school.

"From a purely personal point of view, I thoroughly enjoy a smoke-free restaurant even as a smoker. I wouldn't support (a ban) fundamentally because I think the restaurant owners should be able to make the choice themselves. I think that if you want to put your time and money into a restaurant, you should be able to do that with as few restrictions as possible. It's not the government's place."

[Edit by Korpela: side-bar below showed photo of each person...]

The referendum question
Should the city of Wausau pass a law to ban smoking in all restaurants located within the city?
Brian, Kruse, May Mha, Thao, Kristi, Gumz, Jay Kronenwetter

Copyright (c) Wausau Daily Herald. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Gannett Co., Inc. by NewsBank, Inc. [Article purchased by Kevin Korpela from www.WausauDailyHerald.com.]

Kevin Korpela, www.observatorydrive.com