Heading into one of its most contentious votes in years, the Baltimore City Council is almost evenly divided over a proposed smoking ban for bars - casting unusual uncertainty over a body where outcomes are typically predictable - but last-minute support for the proposal appears to be growing.
At least seven of the 15 council members are expected to vote in favor of the ban - one shy of a majority - at tonight's meeting, and the deciding vote might be cast by Sharon Green Middleton, the newest member of the council, who is expected to be sworn in this afternoon, hours before the vote.
The final vote, if taken, would be the culmination of more than a year of political wrangling and is easily the most politically difficult decision many of the current council members have made. Some believe the council's verdict will influence lawmakers in the General Assembly, who are considering a statewide smoking ban this year.
Howard, Prince George's, Montgomery and Talbot counties have similar smoking prohibitions. If Baltimore approves its measure, just less than half of Maryland's population would fall under broad smoking regulations.
"I've used parliamentarian prowess and all of my legislative wherewithal to get it where it is now," said City Councilman Robert W. Curran, the ban's lead sponsor. "I'm hoping against hope."
At almost every turn, the proposed ban has teetered on the edge of survival. Curran introduced the legislation in March 2005 and waited 21 months before positioning the bill for a vote in the Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee. The ban faced a near deadly blow in December when Curran, fearing a lack of support, pulled it off the full council's agenda minutes before an expected vote.
On Feb. 12, the ban received second-reader approval from the council, a largely procedural - and in this case symbolic - effort that put the proposal on the calendar for a final vote tonight. Six council members voted to support the ban, three voted against it and five abstained. For final approval, supporters of the ban will need eight votes.
City Councilwoman Paula Johnson Branch, who is leaving the council after tonight's meeting, abstained two weeks ago but told The Sun late last week that she now supports the ban. If the six members who voted for the ban two weeks ago maintain their position, Branch would bring the total number of votes in favor to seven.
"I've decided to vote for it," Branch said. "I've been getting a lot of e-mails. You get a lot of phone calls. You're out in the public, and you get all this debate. While I would really prefer that the state do it, ... I'm getting the sense that many of the citizens in Baltimore want us to vote yes."
Middleton is a former teacher who is expected to be selected today to fill the 6th District seat that was left vacant when Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake became president. Middleton has not said how she will vote on the ban, but many believe she will be swayed by Rawlings-Blake and Mayor Sheila Dixon, both of whom support the measure.
"I'm still undecided," Middleton said when asked about the ban late last week. "I'm still polling people in my community."
The maneuvering by both sides of the issue underscores the emotional nature of the debate surrounding the ban, which has played out with equal ferocity in other major cities. Despite growing popularity among city and state leaders, smoking bans are vehemently opposed by restaurant and bar owners, as well as some nonsmokers who believe the government should not interfere.
"Baltimore City is unique in that there are a lot of corner bars and taverns here," said Melvin R. Thompson, a vice president of the Restaurant Association of Maryland, which has opposed the ban. "We're going to keep our fingers crossed."
Advocates for and against the ban reached out to voters over the weekend and encouraged them to call council members. City Councilwoman Belinda Conaway, who abstained from the vote two weeks ago, said late last week that she has received so many calls from proponents and opponents that she does not believe her district is leaning heavily one way or the other. She said she will abstain again today.
"It was really too close to stand on one side," she said.
If approved, the legislation would prohibit smoking in all public places, including bars and restaurants, bowling alleys and taxicabs. Businesses that violate the ban would face a $500 fine for each offense. The ban would take effect Jan. 1.
Baltimore's proposed ban gained momentum this year in part because of a power shift at City Hall. As mayor, Martin O'Malley repeatedly said he preferred a statewide ban to a local one to protect businesses that border on counties without bans. Dixon, who took over the job last month when O'Malley became governor, has been considerably more supportive.
"I made it very clear that I would support it," Dixon said. "I think it's just significant in our efforts to deal with a number of health issues."
Baltimore's City Council is scheduled to hold a final vote on a proposed citywide smoking ban in public places, including bars. The meeting is set for 5 p.m. today on the fourth floor of City Hall, 100 N. Holliday St.