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Assembly passes anti-smoking law

The Sitka Assembly passed a controversial amendment Tuesday night, tightening the city’s anti-smoking laws. The question before the assembly was whether children should be prohibited from entering any business that allows smoking — even for a non-smoking event. In the end, the decision came down to different interpretations of what voters intended nearly a decade ago.

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It was the fourth time the Assembly had discussed the amendment, which pitted anti-smoking advocates against those who felt, in the words of one member of the public, “You’re going a little too far…You’re micromanaging things that a parent should do. So let’s do city things, and let parents do parent things.”

In 2005, Sitka voters passed a law that barred children from entering businesses that allow smoking. This past December, the American Legion, a private club that allows smoking, hosted a Christmas party for kids – but didn’t allow smoking at the event. The Legion asked the city attorney whether the party was legal. She said it was.

In response, Mayor Mim McConnell and Assembly Member Phyllis Hackett sponsored an amendment to clarify the intent of the 2005 law. The new language makes it clear that if a business allows smoking, then kids can’t enter, even for a smoke-free event.

That prompted protests from the Legion, and the Assembly sent the issue to the Health Needs and Human Services Commission. The commission voted unanimously in favor of the amendment. They cited, in particular, the possible health hazards of third-hand smoke, or the chemicals that can remain in walls and furniture after a room has been used for smoking.

But both McConnell and Hackett argued that all of these issues – third-hand smoke, public health, assembly overreach and even Christmas parties – were beside the point. Voters already settled these issues when they passed the law in 2005, Hackett said. The assembly’s job was simply to honor the voters’ original intent.

“The issue here, which I know some people are having a hard time understanding or choosing to believe, but the issue here is about intent, and it’s about the intent of the ordinance that was passed,” Hackett said. “And it was passed overwhelmingly by the voters.”

Assembly Members Mike Reif and Matt Hunter, however, insisted it wasn’t so easy to tell what voters intended nearly a decade ago. Reif pointed out that third-hand smoke, for instance, wasn’t even part of the debate in 2005.

“I personally really don’t know the intent of the voters in Sitka back in 2005,” Reif said. “It’s very cloudy trying to speculate what the intent was of all those voters.”

All the same, Reif said he felt he had a clearer sense of the voters’ will now.

“I do think that if we put this to the vote of Sitkan voters today, that they would pass this, they would want to see this banned,” Reif said. “I’ll support it because that’s what I think the majority of Sitkans want.”

Hunter, meanwhile, spoke at length about how his thinking on the issue had changed.

“I’ve publicly gone back and forth on this issue and I’m still conflicted on it,” Hunter said, adding that he had consulted the original 2005 ballot. “The language as it’s written, the whole reason for doing this amendment to change the language, is because the language is unclear. And to me it means that, what people voted on, it’s very easy for people to interpret it in many ways.”

He said he thought the issue should be put to a vote once again.

“I am going to not support this ordinance because I feel that this is an issue that really needs to go to the people to decide,” he said. “And while I have no intention of exposing myself or those I love to first-, second- or third-hand smoke, I also am very sensitive to the personal responsibility issue.”

In the end, Hunter was the only vote against the amendment. Assembly Member Pete Esquiro had agreed with Hunter during earlier meetings, but he voted yes, without offering any other comment.

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