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At Assembly, smoking law stirs controversy

Should children be prohibited from entering a business that allows smoking — even during a non-smoking event? That was the question before the Sitka Assembly on Tuesday (1-28-2014).  What was just a holiday event for some Sitkans represented, for others, a threat to public health – and a violation of the voters’ intent.

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For Margaret Peterson, it was just a Christmas party. Peterson is the Pub Manager at the American Legion in Sitka. In December, the Legion hosted an event for about 75 kids.

“Every one of the kids got to see Santa and Mrs. Claus,” Peterson told the Sitka Assembly. “They all got a present, they all got a bag of candy…Every one of the kids got a new jacket, a winter jacket to take home with them.”

But there was a wrinkle in this plan: the American Legion is a private club that allows smoking. And in 2005, Sitka voters passed a law prohibiting children from entering businesses where smoking is allowed. Just before the Christmas Party, the American Legion received a phone call complaining that they were violating the law.

So they checked with City Attorney Robin Koutchak. And Koutchak checked the ordinance. The law reads, Children under the age of eighteen shall not be permitted in any place of employment where smoking is allowed.

But the American Legion wasn’t going to allow smoking – not at this particular event. So, Koutchak said, not a problem. They could hold the Christmas Party as planned.

In early January, the Sitka Assembly decided to revisit that smoking ordinance. Mayor Mim McConnell and Assembly member Phyllis Hackett sponsored a revision, adding this language: Once the declaration of an establishment, facility or outdoor area as smoking has been made under this section, it shall not be changed for temporary or special functions. In other words, a business is either smoking or non-smoking. You can’t allow smoking sometimes, and then air out the room for events with kids.

Deputy Mayor Matt Hunter laid out some of the health concerns behind the law.

“The CDC says no amount of second-hand smoke, no matter how little, is safe,” Hunter said.”And I did some further research and talked to some people and discovered that the research that’s going on right now says that airing a place out is not enough to make it safe. The amount of carcinogens in the air, the cancer-causing chemicals and toxins actually get embedded within the walls.”

But at Tuesday’s meeting, nearly a dozen people stood up to plead with the Assembly not to pass the revised ordinance.

“This is a place where we have memorials for our vets that had passed away,” Peterson said. “If you guys change this smoking ordinance, the families cannot bring their kids in to have these memorials.”

“My grandchildren were so very happy,” said Sitka resident Robbie Martin, of the December event. “Now there’s Easter parties and memorials and things like that where children would be coming into the club. And I really hope there is some discussion for this.”

“I was able to take my younger children to this party, and it was very obviously a smoke-free and alcohol-free event,” said Sitka resident Stacy Joseph. “And they provided a wonderful hot meal for us, and it was all free to my family, and for a low income family, that’s really important.

But, Assembly member Phyllis Hackett said, it’s all beside the point.

“This isn’t really about the American Legion,” Hackett said. “It’s about the ordinance, and it’s about the fact that the intent of the ordinance, originally when it was passed by the people, was to protect children from second-hand smoke…by not letting them in smoking facilities.”

“Unfortunately, the ordinance was not written well enough to be able to cover the intention,” she said. “And all we’re doing by this is making it follow the intent and the way that people voted.”

City Attorney Robin Koutchak disagreed.

“With all due respect to Ms. Hackett, the intent was open for debate,” Koutchak said. She said it simply isn’t clear what voters originally intended.

In the end, the assembly voted 5-2 to postpone the issue, with McConnell and Hackett voting against postponement. The ordinance will be referred to the Health Needs and Human Services Commission — with the hope that they can come up with a solution that clears the air.

**

In other business, the Sitka Assembly passed on first reading an ordinance that would encourage city agencies to do more of their purchasing from local businesses. The ordinance would also set up a system by which the city could track how much it buys locally.

And the Assembly authorized city staff to apply for a loan from the Alaska Energy Authority, to finish construction of the Blue Lake hydro project. The city had originally hoped for a state grant to cover the final $18.5 million in construction costs, but now plans to borrow the money instead.

 

 

 

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