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Council moves to ban smoking in parks, but not golf courses

Friday, December 9, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

Though Council Member Laura Morrison cited “almost unanimous” agreement on a smoking ban in Austin’s parks, the question about whether to include golf courses eventually overwhelmed the City Council on Thursday.


After it became clear that a majority of the Council would not approve the ban for golf courses, all seven finally voted to approve the parks ban, but put off voting on the third reading one more week while details on banning smoking on public golf courses are being ironed out.


Morrison said that she was “concerned” about exempting golf courses, casting doubt on the alleged negative economic impact a ban might have on public courses.


Morrison’s motion to pass the ban, including public golf courses, but exempting actors who were being filmed, failed. Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, and Council Members Bill Spelman and Chris Riley all voted in opposition.


This led to a series of increasingly specific clarifications.


While actors were exempted from the ban in the draft, Morrison wanted to clarify it further to ensure that only actors who were in the process of acting were exempted. (Or, as Spelman put it earlier, an exemption “for actors pretending to be cool on film.”)


After her first motion failed, Morrison proposed that golf courses allow smoking only in designated areas, something Leffingwell declared would interfere with game play.


“It appears to work in Los Angeles,” said Morrison. “because they have designated smoking areas on golf courses.”


Leffingwell appeared unconvinced, saying, “Well, if it works in L.A…”


Council Member Mike Martinez offered a suggestion that smoking only be allowed while actually playing a round of golf.


“What if you are an actor pretending to play golf? Would that work?” asked Spelman.


After several minutes of discussion, it became clear that Martinez’s amendment was too complicated, the line between playing and not playing golf too blurry, and the amendment was withdrawn.


Leffingwell made it known that he would not be supporting a ban that extended to golf courses, saying, “Our public golf courses are basically on life-support most of the time as it is, and I think that is something we don’t want to do, is drag people away from our public golf courses onto private courses.”


As for the park portion of the ban, Spelman, the City Council’s only regular smoker, had several questions about the ban for Parks and Recreation Department Director Sara Hensley.


“We have a philosophical difference of opinion here, because I’m absolutely on with the idea of making bans and fines and so on to protect people from the behavior of others… I am philosophically opposed to something as stringent as something to protect me from my own behavior, or to protect any citizen from their own behavior. I think it really ought to be up to them to make their decisions… Let us all go to hell in our own way,” said Spelman.


Continuing on his philosophical track, Spelman laid out a scenario of a smoker, alone in a park. He asked Hensley if no one was there to be impacted by secondhand smoke, and if they took their butt with them, would the ban still apply? Or would that be considered permissible?


“Maybe someone is around. You just never know in a park,” said Hensley, who noted this surreptitious smoking might take place in locations where fires were more likely to start, and police were less able to patrol.


“Most importantly is my collaborative effort and coordination with the Health and Human Services Department. And that is, when you talk about $1.8 million spent alone in Austin, Texas for health-related costs from smoking, that is a fact… This is important, and it is a part of city government. I think we have a responsibility to protect our community as a whole,” said Hensley.


A suggestion by Spelman to develop designated smoking areas in parks gained no traction with Hensley, and it remains to be seen whether it will be entertained at the next Council meeting.


“To me, the best answer is just to stop it… I do think that’s the way to go,” said Hensley.


“We have worked very closely with police, and it’s not like they are going to go out there every day and just hit people hard. They want a grace period. We want to educate the public, we don’t want to persecute them,” said Hensley, who later characterized the enforcement of the burn ban in parks (which includes smoking) that has been in place since April as a “very polite conversation.”

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