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Smoking ban going to public vote

It looks like West Fargo voters will have the deciding say in a complete smoking ban for the City.

West Fargo City Commissioners voted 4-1 Monday night to have City residents decide the fate of a 100 percent citywide smoking ban in a special election that could occur this November or in June of 2008 during the general city election. Commissioner Mark Simmons made the motion, with Mayor Rich Mattern and Commissioners Bryan Schulz and Lou Bennett voting in support and Commissioner Brenda Warren opposing the motion.

Simmons' motion came on the heels of a first motion made by Warren to place on first reading a smoking ban more restrictive than the City's present ban, patterned after the one that will go into effect in Minnesota on Oct. 1. Warren's motion included a stipulation that West Fargo's ordinance be the same as the one acted upon Monday night by the city of Fargo. "As city commissioners we need to step up to the plate and move forward with our neighbors," she said, before the count on her motion that failed by a 2-3 vote, with Bennett joining her with a 'yes' vote.

Simmons countered by offering the second motion, stating "I believe this should go to a vote of the people."

Before the vote, Mattern said he felt the Commission should wait a year and see how the ordinance in Moorhead plays out. "We did vote on the issue a few years ago and a total ban was voted down. I think we should wait and see how Moorhead is doing after a year."

He also added that he felt a complete ban would hurt the businesses. "These are people with homes and mortgages and college tuition to deal with. It is going to hurt the businesses. The North Dakota Legislature voted down a total ban. It should be the North Dakota Legislature that makes the decision."

Following the second vote, Warren said she was "gravely disappointed," in the outcome.

Schulz said he supported a complete smoking ban but felt sending the matter to a vote of the people was inevitable, and by voting 'no' would speed the process up and resolve the issue sooner.

Bennett said he voted for the ordinance because it would give Commissioners time to hear from Fargo on how they went with their vote.

All this action came after almost three and a half hours of sometimes emotional and heated testimony from a packed Commission chamber of proponents and opponents of a stricter ban, with those for the ban touting their right to breathe smoke free air, and opponents acknowledging their right to be able to choose for themselves.

Michelle Donarski, both a West Fargo resident and chairman of the Fargo Cass Public Health Board of Health, urged Commissioners to support a complete smoking ban. "The need to breathe smoke free air should have priority over choice," she said.

Former Miss North Dakota, Kimberly Krueger, of Fargo, also an ambassador for the American Cancer Society, told the story of her grandmother who eventually succumbed to emphysema. "I don't think it's fair. This is a public health issue. Join the 100's of cities across the U.S. who are for smoke free air."

West Fargo resident Annette Thompson spoke of the ill effects of being in a smoke filled bar - a raspy voice and sore chest. "I think this issue is choice versus change. We need to support an ordinance like this in West Fargo."

Linda Coles, chairman of the SAFE coalition, spoke on behalf of West Fargo resident Brandon Carmichael, suffering from Berger's disease, who likes to visit bars but can't because of the effect on his illness from smoking. "He supports smoke free bars," she said. "This is a step-by-step process. That's why we'd like to see West Fargo and Fargo do this. The end result is to have all people protected from secondhand smoke."

Bette Deede, a resident of Villa Parkway, who said she was speaking on behalf of her children and grandchildren, told Commissioners "as elected officials you need to protect safety. There is no safe level of secondhand smoke. How can you put a dollar value on any of your loved ones? I challenge you to quit passing the buck."

On the other side of the coin, Diane Kleven, who lives on 2nd Street West said "I thought when we voted a couple of years ago we voted for smoke free restaurants and leaving the bars alone. Why does this issue keep coming up? It should be a business owner's choice. I don't think smokers have been all that selfish. We need some places for those 21 and over to go."

Nikki Weissman, executive director of the North Dakota Hospitality Association, said she represented 800 bars throughout the state. "The decision should be left to the business owners. The freedom to make a responsible choice should be their guide."

Former City Commissioner and longtime West Fargo businessman Larry Lepird who also previously owned and operated the Silver Dollar Bar said, "Don't dictate. I would go to the people again. Let the people decide what they want to do."

West Fargo VFW Manager Richard Benson talked about the lost revenues when smoking wasn't allowed during the last ban, citing huge losses. "We had the biggest year before the smoking ban and then dropped $3 million in two years." He said gaming revenues are up considerably in the last six months after the revised ban allowed them to have smoking again. "This has been a bar issue, not a public workplace issue. Go after smoking instead of going after businesses. It's our duty if we believe in something to stand by it. We know what's good for business. Let us make that choice."

Deanna Dirks, who along with her husband Brian, operate the M&J Saloon, agreed with Benson about the choice issue. "People can make a choice to light up a cigarette and make a choice to walk into our establishment. We would lose 25 to 30 percent of our business. We can't do that and keep the doors open. I've talked to three other businesses that feel the same way. Nobody likes to be told what to do. We want things to stay the way they are."

Kurt Lepird, owner-operator of the Silver Dollar Bar, said there is more at stake than just his bar, adding that he has his family and employees to think about. "Health is important to me. My employees already smoke, so they are not being exposed to anything they didn't know about. We run our business as lean as possible. I worry about how this will affect my family, my future, their education and my retirement. I hope you make the right decision for everyone involved."

The passed motion also included directing City Attorney Brian Neugebauer to come up with smoking ban wording for the vote of the people to be approved by the Commission, with a time for the vote to be determined.