The chance to weigh in on a proposal to ban smoking at indoor workplaces in Oak Park drew over 100 people to council chambers last Tuesday night to testify before the Board of Health at a marathon public hearing.
For over four hours, the ban's most decisive opponents, local business and restaurant owners, continued to trade in debate with Oak Park's equally dedicated smoke-free proponents on matters of health, economics and statistics, via three minute testimonials.
"You have a choice. This is about choice. If you do this, you will close down business because of lack of revenue," said Michael Pace, owner of the Avenue Ale House and LaBella. "This is not about health."
"We shouldn't let a few businesses decide what to do. We should acknowledge fears, not succumb to them," said David Ansell, also a member of Smoke-Free Oak Park. "The remedy shouldn't be foisted on the state or federal government. We have home rule precisely so we can control our destiny."
Non-veterans of public smoking ban debates also commented at the meeting, both passionately for and against.
"I believe restaurants brought business to Oak Park. I believe the statistics can go both ways. I think there's plenty of choice," said Curtis Cruver. "They're the ones who put up hundreds of thousands of dollars. I believe a ban is a definite economic risk."
Throughout last week's hearing, however, it was also clear the smoking ban proposal has drawn interest from well outside Oak Park's four-and-a-half square miles. Two university professors, one from as far away as Madison, Wis., came to report that smoking bans don't hurt business. Residents from Riverside and Spring Grove came to say they would frequent Oak Park's restaurants more often if smoking were banned.
The chair of Wilmette's Board of Health, Diana Hackbarth, also spoke in support of the proposed ban. Wilmette passed a ban on smoking at all indoor public places in July of last year.
"We did this because it is the responsibility of good government to protect public health. It's unfair for an ordinance to protect some, but not others," Hackbarth said. "Your fears are unfounded. We've been a success. Oak Park will be a success."
Oak Park's health board already ruled in favor of the ban prior to last week's meeting, and didn't take any further action. The board will compile speakers' comments for the Board of Trustees.
The village board, which will make the final decision on the smoking ban, is expected to review the health board's findings at a study session on March 2.
Two trustees, Ray Johnson and Gus Kostopulos, have already said they are opposed to the ban.