Council debates ban on smoking Ecker threatens another veto


The Howard County Council may decide tonight to place an almost total ban on smoking in public places beginning July 1, 1996.

But County Executive Charles I. Ecker says almost is not good enough.

Unless the ban is total, he says, he will veto the bill -- as he did a nearly identical bill June 18.

The council will vote on the newest version of the smoking bill tonight. But first the council will hold an 8 p.m. work session on the bill in an attempt to reach a compromise on what, if any, exemptions should be allowed once the bill takes effect.

A majority of council members wants the ban to apply to restaurants. But until now, they have had difficulty deciding what constitutes a restaurant.

As written, the bill would exempt bars and taverns from the ban, defining them establishments that earn more than 50 percent of their income from alcohol sales.

Many restaurant owners asked that the exemption be removed. They said most county bars and taverns serve meals and function like restaurants. Exempting them would be unfair, the restaurateurs said.

Councilman Darrel Drown, R-2nd, agreed and filed an amendment Friday that would have removed the exemption.

But now he fears that five or six county bars that serve only minimal amounts of food would be put out of business by the ban. He and Councilman Paul R. Farragut, D-4th, have drafted an amendment which would exempt bars and taverns that sell minimal amounts of food.

Councilman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, the chief sponsor of the current bill and the one vetoed last month by Mr. Ecker, said he is confused by the Drown-Farragut proposal.

"I don't understand why they would weaken the bill, to tell you the truth," he said.

Mr. Gray is also concerned that the criteria for determining minimal food service in a bar or tavern would be based on health department regulations.

"It is not a good policy to base law on regulations," Mr. Gray said. Changes in regulations can occur at a low level without public scrutiny, whereas changes in law must be debated in public by people accountable to the public, he said.

"I don't understand why they want exemptions," said County Executive Ecker. "If it's a health issue, why are there exemptions? If there are any exemptions, I'll veto it."

Mr. Ecker also believes the Drown-Farragut proposal, if added, would be a substantive change in the bill and should be discussed in a public hearing before the council votes on it.

If Mr. Ecker vetoes the bill, the earliest the council could vote to override his veto would be September. The council does not plan to meet in August.

Mr. Ecker vetoed the earlier bill because it contained the bar and tavern exemption and because it contained a so-called smokers' rights clause. He told members of the council that he would sign the new bill if the smokers' rights clause and the bar and tavern exemption were removed.

Councilman Gray believes otherwise.

Mr. Ecker "will always find a reason to veto the bill," he said.

The threatened veto is a "simplistic answer to a complex, serious issue," Mr. Gray said. "It is a knee-jerk reaction, not a well thought-out idea."

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