The Sitka Assembly on Tuesday night (2-25-14) once again took up the question of whether children should be prohibited from entering businesses that allow smoking, even during non-smoking events. And, once again, they postponed a decision.

For some assembly members, the question came down to finding the right balance between public health and individual freedom.

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The last time this smoking ordinance came before the Sitka Assembly, in January, nearly a dozen members of the public rose to speak against it. This time, everyone who addressed the assembly, spoke in favor.

“It is our obligation towards the great people of Sitka and especially our children who are more vulnerable to spare no efforts in protecting their health,” said Sitka resident Paul Bahna.

“The clarification of this language protects the health of all the minors in Sitka,” said resident Amy Gorn. “Everyone should have the right to breathe clean air.”

“This is an opportunity that the assembly has to support the health of kids in our community, and do that in a way that supports overall public health,” said resident and longtime anti-smoking advocate Ryan Kauffman.

The issue stems from a 2005 referendum passed by Sitka voters, which prohibits minors from entering any business where smoking is allowed.

As it turns out, there was a loophole in that law.

This past December, the American Legion, a private club that allows smoking, held a Christmas party for children. They consulted with City Attorney Robin Koutchak, who said that although the Legion is a smoking club, as long as smoking wasn’t allowed at that particular event, they were within the bounds of the law.

Following the party, Mayor Mim McConnell and assembly member Phyllis Hackett introduced an amendment to tighten the ordinance. The new language clarifies that a business must declare itself either smoking, or non-smoking. If it’s a smoking business, then children can’t enter, even for a smoke-free event.

Kauffman said that he participated in the 2005 referendum, and the new ordinance honors voters’ original intent.

“I know what my intent was as a voter,” he said. “And that was to protect children from the harmful effects of tobacco.”

Those effects were the subject of a presentation by Paul Bahna, who discussed new research into “third-hand smoke” – that is, the residual chemicals from cigarette smoke that can attach to indoor surfaces, like walls or furniture, and remain for weeks or months after a room has been used for smoking.

The last time this issue came up, the assembly referred it to the Health Needs and Human Services Commission. Chairman Ron Fribush said the commission unanimously supports the amendment.

But Deputy Mayor Matt Hunter, who spoke in favor of the amendment last time around, said he had changed his mind.

“I’ve gone back and forth, completely, twice on this issue,” Hunter said. “What it really comes down to for me is not so much the health risks, which are very evident…At some point, I’m having trouble telling people how to choose to raise their kids. I’m stuck on this personal responsibility, personal rights issue, where essentially I’m telling someone, you cannot choose to take your kids into this place for an evening, for a party.”

Assembly member Pete Esquiro agreed. But Mayor Mim McConnell said that Hunter and Esquiro were missing the point.

“The philosophical decision about this, we have no business making that decision, because it was made by voters in 2005,” McConnell said “All that this language does is clarify what the voters intended, what the assembly intended, in 2005…What people are agonizing over, that agony was taken care of at the polls in 2005.”

At that point, the assembly was divided: McConnell and assembly members Mike Reif and Aaron Swanson said they would vote yes. Hunter said he would vote no, and Esquiro appeared to be on the fence. Assembly members Ben Miyasato and Phyllis Hackett were both absent and excused.

At that point, there was an interruption from the audience. Former assembly member Jay Stelzenmuller stepped forward to ask that the decision be postponed until all seven assembly members were present.

“I would like to ask that this issue is important enough to enough people,  that I would ask you to postpone the decision until you have a full assembly,” Stelzenmuller said.

Stelzenmuller’s interjection wasn’t allowed under assembly rules, but it did the trick. In the end, all five members agreed to postpone the vote.

“Okay, everybody can breathe,” McConnell said, after the vote.

At least until next time.