P-D 2012-08-15: “St. Charles County voters may see competing smoking bans on November ballot”

Efforts to either curb smoke-free air pollution in St. Charles County, or to head off meaningful protections, are again getting media attention, today making the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in a story by reporter, Susan Weich, reproduced below.

St. Charles has always been backward on smoke-free air protections, but recently County Councilman Joe Cronin has made several attempts to make progress on this public health issue – as reported on this blog – with this being his latest.

St. Charles County voters may see competing smoking bans on November ballot

SUSAN WEICH sweich@post-dispatch.com > 636-255-7207

St. CHARLES COUNTY • Separate efforts to restrict smoking countywide could mean voters will see dueling ballot issues in November.

Earlier this month, a petition drive heavily financed by Ameristar Casino was submitted to the county’s Elections Commission; it would exempt the casino and many bars and restaurants.

Councilman Joe Cronin, St. Paul

Then Monday night, County Councilman Joe Cronin, R-St. Paul, introduced an alternative ban. Although it is stricter than the first, it also would exempt gambling facilities.

Both measures propose changes to the county charter, and each faces hurdles before being placed on the ballot.

At Monday’s County Council meeting, Robert Hoeynck, assistant county counselor, said the petition drive’s paperwork was missing some required language. The wording — the full text of the new charter section and language regarding legislative power — had to be submitted at the same time as the petitions and can’t be added now, he said.

The final decision on that issue will be made by County Elections Director Rich Chrismer who said Tuesday that for now, he is continuing to verify the signatures submitted. Petitioners need 18,535 signatures, or 10 percent of the total vote for governor in 2008 in each of the seven council districts.

If sufficient signatures can’t be verified, the ballot language issue would be a moot point, he said.

Carl Bearden

Carl Bearden, a former Republican state representative who organized the petition drive, said Tuesday that he believes his group, Committee for Economic Liberty, turned in a complete submission.

“If we have sufficient signatures, and they do not put it on the ballot, we will have to consider litigation,” he said.

Hoeynck said the deadline to get issues on the November ballot was Aug. 28, but if a lawsuit is filed, the court could order the amendment to be placed on the ballot as late as six weeks before the election.

Meanwhile Cronin’s proposal has to make it past a divided council and County Executive Steve Ehlmann, who vetoed a similar proposal last year.

This is the third time Cronin has offered an anti-smoking measure, but he said he was hoping small changes he made in this bill would ensure it goes to voters.

For instance, Cronin said earlier bills had exempted cigar bars, but the new measure does not.

“Mr. Ehlmann cited that specifically in his veto message, and I thought it was a reasonable change to make,” he said.

Ehlmann could not be reached for comment about Cronin’s latest measure.

Cronin’s bill would prohibit smoking in most enclosed public places. Besides gambling facilities, exemptions include private clubs if no employees are present, up to 20 percent of hotel and motel rooms and licensed medical research facilities.

Bearden’s measure would allow people to continue to light up in businesses that prohibit customers under 21 years old. Businesses limiting smoking to a ventilated enclosed area separated from the rest of the building could also allow patrons to smoke. The measure also would exempt nonprofit veteran and fraternal groups that sell only alcoholic beverages, plus retail tobacco stores, cigar bars and up to 20 percent of rooms in hotels and motels.

Both measures would apply countywide, affecting municipalities and unincorporated areas. However, it would allow stronger bans already in effect in O’Fallon and Lake Saint Louis to remain. Other cities would be free to exceed the proposed county restrictions as well.

Cronin said he had continued to introduce legislation on smoking because people, not politicians, should decide the issue.

“That’s how we settle controversial issues in this country, by going to the polls,” he said.

People on both sides of the issue spoke at the council meeting and also weighed in on Tuesday.

Bill Hannegan, director of Keep St. Louis Free, said he was in favor of the Bearden initiative, which he said would allow freedom of choice for all types of businesses.

Stacy Reliford, an American Cancer Society official, declined to comment specifically about the proposals but said she and other anti-smoking activists still were hoping for a comprehensive law that covered everyone.

If both measures are placed on the Nov. 6 ballot, they would each need a simple majority to pass. It’s unclear what would happen if both were approved.

Hoeynck declined to speculate, and Chrismer described it as an interesting quandary.

“I guess it would mean job security for the lawyers,” Chrismer said.

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