Tepid board moves smoking ban ahead

? Ban finds two detractors, no champions on village board after restaurant owners protest.

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By KATHARINE GRAYSON

Following over two hours of public testimony, the Oak Park Village Board voted 5-2 last Tuesday to send a proposed indoor smoking ban back to the village's Health Board for a public hearing.

Trustees' comments at the late-night meeting, however, did not indicate any guarantee that the sitting board will ultimately approve the ban.

Several board members joined the chorus of business owners who testified on the potential negative impact the legislation would have on restaurants.

Trustees Ray Johnson and Gus Kostopulos said they favored nixing the proposal that evening, rather than even hold a hearing.

"I cannot support this process and ordinance as being better for Oak Park. Society is changing voluntarily," Kostopulos said. "The business climate is difficult as it is, without us making it harder."

Voices of local business at the meeting outnumbered members of Smoke-Free Oak Park, a pro-ban advocacy group, over 2 to 1. Ban proponents, mostly doctors, contended the health risks posed by secondhand smoke should outweigh restaurateurs' fears that a ban would drive customers to neighboring communities.

"The same arguments are made in every community. It's like a Greek drama," said Smoke-Free Oak Park member David Ansell. "We're discussing this as if health and freedom of choice are two equal opportunities."

"The health data is incontrovertible. You can save lives by doing this," he added.

Merchants, however, said the issue isn't a matter of health, but of retaining customers and keeping government out of business decisions. The issue is also one, they argued, that should be addressed at the state level.

"It is a tax on restaurants in Oak Park. It will create an island surrounded by communities taking business from us," said Gary Cole, a former Oak Park village trustee who spoke on behalf of Robinson's Ribs. "Oak Park has been on the cutting edge of a lot of issues. Oak Park has also crashed and burned on some issues and this may be heading that way."

Following public comment, trustees engaged in a lengthy discussion, with no board member stepping forward as a champion of the legislation.

Though she ultimately voted in favor of holding a hearing, Trustee Diana Carpenter questioned the economic implications of a ban.

"Our competition is not just Forest Park, and this will not allow a level playing field," she said. "Taking this to federal, or even to the state legislature makes more sense to me." 

Trustee Robert Milstein said he originally favored a ban, but became "conflicted" about the issue following public comment. Trustees David Pope and Galen Gockel said the board should seek more information before making a decision, and did not take a strong position on the issue.

"About 90 percent of the discussion at the board table is premature," Gockel said.

Pope unsuccessfully requested the board direct village staff to prepare an analysis of the impact a ban would have on the local economy.

Trustees also questioned whether the Health Board was the proper body to preside over a public hearing, as it has already voted in favor of a ban, an issue raised by some speakers at the meeting.

Pope also requested the board approve an amendment that would make the village board the hearing body, but the majority of trustees dissented.

"There are times its appropriate to punt an issue. Tonight is not one of those times. If we don't answer this quickly, we'll find ourselves in a quagmire of uncertainty," Johnson said. "We need more education and less regulation."

The public hearing was previously set for 7:30 p.m. on March 16 at Village Hall. As of press time, the hearing date was expected to be bumped up, but a final time could not be confirmed. 

The health board will write a summary of testimony and forward findings to the village board for review at a later date, said Georgeen Polyak, health department director.

At last week's meeting, 17 people spoke against the ban, and seven spoke for. Here are some of their comments:
? Steve Berggren, chair of the Oak Park and River Forest Chamber of Commerce: "Putting a ban on smoking in Oak Park puts us at a competitive disadvantage. We look to our elected officials to provide a fair playing field."
? Michael Pace, owner of the Ale House and La Bella: "If you stack the cards against us, you'll see us close our doors. It's hard enough as it is."
? Patrick Trammer, Smoke-Free Oak Park: "I'm very aware that people have many economic concerns. The economic benefits are greater than economic detriments. We support diversity, we support many things. This could be a wonderful thing."
? Lloyd Klein, Smoke-Free Oak Park: "This is a ready-made marketing strategy that will us set us apart. This is a pro-consumer, pro-Oak Park argument."
? Rich Carollo, executive director, Oak Park Area Convention and Visitors Bureau: "Our job doesn't stop with attracting tourists. Your community benefits the longer the visitor stays. At a time when tourism is on the rebound, all you'd be doing is giving people a reason to go somewhere else."
?#34;Katharine Grayson

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