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Charter amendments banning indoor smoking could be on November ballot in St. Charles County

St. Charles County voters could face the possibility of approving two charter amendments this November that would ban some indoor smoking in public places. One is a strict smoking ban supported by public health advocates; the other would allow smoking exemptions for private clubs, bars and the Ameristar Casino in St. Charles.

Which one would be implemented may be decided by the courts, county officials are already saying.

Whether the amendments end up on the Nov. 6 ballot has yet to be decided. But some of the division and debate on them played out at a packed County Council meeting on Aug. 13.

One of the amendments is the result of a petition with more than 30,000 signatures that was submitted in July. Those signatures are still being verified. That amendment would ban smoking in all enclosed public places. County election officials have until Aug. 28 to verify petition signatures and certify the proposition for the ballot.

The second bill, sponsored by St. Charles Councilmember Mike Klinghammer [District 6], came before the council on Aug. 13 for a first reading.  That bill would ban indoor smoking except in places where only persons age 21 and over are present and in 20 percent of hotel rooms, private clubs, tobacco-related retail stores and casinos.

The council agreed to delay a decision on Klinghammer’s bill until its Aug. 27 meeting.

The Aug. 13 meeting turned into a bit of a free for all with petition supporters, small businesses, supporters of vapor/e-cigarettes, and even councilmembers espousing varying points of view on smoking bans.

Members of the Smoke Free St. Charles County Coalition, a consortium of health care and nonprofit organizations that spearheaded the petition drive, wore blue shirts with “Everyone Has the Right to Breath Smoke-Free Air” printed on the back. E-cigarette supporters sat in the council chambers wearing white shirts adorned with “I Vape & I Vote” printed on the front.

Supporters of the council’s bill, including local small business owners, told councilmembers that businesses and customers should be allowed to make their own decisions about smoking and not be regulated by outsiders.

“I’m the one that put up the half million dollars to start this business,” said Joe Aiello, owner of Aiellos Cigar Bar in Cottleville. “How is it right for the general public to come in and tell me what I can and can’t do in my business?”

Coral Gold, owner of South 94 Bistro in St. Peters, said small businesses work hard and pay a lot of taxes. “I believe in freedom of choice,” Gold said. “It’s a choice to patronize a business establishment.”

“The health of every resident should matter to you,” Kristen Williams, a Smoke Free member and St. Peters resident, told the councilmembers. She said the four pages of exemptions in Klinghammer’s bill “indicated that only some matter.” She added that Klinghammer’s bill may be a means to confuse voters and thwart the voices of 34,000 residents who signed the coalition’s petition.

Karen Englert, an American Red Cross Association official from St. Peters, said her organization was among more than 40 healthcare and nonprofit corporations supported the petition drive.  The “facts” are, she said, that there “are no safe levels of second-hand smoke. Smoking sections don’t work.”

Restaurant, hotel and bar employees along with many of the 1,500 workers at Ameristar Casino will continue to be exposed to second-hand smoke under Klinghammer’s bill, she said. “With four pages of exemptions, you are picking winners and losers in public health and that simply is not right, it’s really not,” Englert said.

She also noted that at least 4,500 residents of each of the council’s seven districts signed the petition. The American Heart Association invested more than a $1 million dollars in the petition campaign, she said.  “So we do have some skin in the game,” Englert said.

The petition charter amendment would ban smoking in all public places such as restaurants, hotels, motels, membership clubs, casinos, stores, bars, and in places of employment and vehicles used by a business’ employees.

Exemptions to the smoking ban include bars and restaurants that posts signs identifying themselves as smoking establishments. Smoking would be allowed for patrons age 21 and older at businesses, bars and restaurant areas that are separately ventilated and physically designated from nonsmoking areas. Smoking would be allowed at American Legion and Veterans of Foreign War posts and cigar bars and tobacco stores barring customers under age 18. The exemptions also include open-air patios, porches and decks.

Under Klinghammer’s bill, smoking at casinos would be permitted on about 50 percent of the floor area where gambling is allowed. Ameristar Casino personnel did not speak at the meeting; however, Larry Dobrosky, director of administration for the city of St. Charles, said the casino expects to lose 20 percent of its business if it goes totally smoke-free. The city, he said,  might lose about $2.5 million annually in tax revenue that goes to public safety and police services.

Councilmember Terry Hollander [District 5] said the emergence of Klinghammer’s bill after the petitions were turned into the County Election Authority “stinks.”

“Let’s not kid ourselves, this isn’t about a private business making choices,” Hollander said. “This is about the casino.”

He said 34,000 residents have indicated that they want a smoking ban to appear on the ballot. “I can’t see how four of us, just four of us, can change that,” Hollander said. Four council votes are needed to approve Klinghammer’s bill and exemptions for the Nov. 6 ballot.

Hollander also noted that St. Charles County officials have said publically that they would not become reliant on casino revenue. “Well, here it is and they are telling us they are reliant,” he said.

Councilmember Joe Brazil [District 2] said he couldn’t support the petition-driven amendment, calling its 35,000 signatures “bogus” and claiming that those who collected them were unable to answer questions correctly.

A total ban would “violate the constitutional rights” of small business owners and hurt veterans at VFW posts who would not be allowed to smoke inside. “If you don’t want to go in there,don’t go,” Brazil said. He said the restaurant he owns has a clear “no smoking” sign. “I don’t understand why all of these do-gooders come in here and try to tell other people how to live their lives.”

Brazil’s comments drew a sharp response from the audience, which prompted Council Chairman Dave Hammond [District 4] to say that any other outbursts would result in the removal of audience members.

The council did pass a motion asking the County Election Authority to have the verification of the petition’s signatures done by Aug. 27.

Any smoking ban would apply to county municipalities and its unincorporated area. Lake Saint Louis and O’Fallon already have smoking bans in place.

Left unclear was whether County Executive Steve Ehlmann would be able to sign off on the Klinghammer bill if the council approves it. A court case cited by county officials noted that an amendment proposal need not be presented to the county executive for approval or veto.

The council rejected a motion by Cronin to send the bills they approve to Ehlmann, with some councilmembers saying the council could make this decision when it takes up the bill again on Aug. 27.

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