OP snuffs outsmoking ban

Campaign for a Smoke-Free OP members

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By KATHARINE GRAYSON

A proposal to ban smoking at all indoor workplaces and restaurants in Oak Park died slowly Monday night.

An attempt to table discussion on the divisive issue failed first. A motion to give businesses the opportunity to seek exemption from the legislation went down next.

And after an ensuing lengthy discussion, the village board finally nixed the legislation all together in a 5-2 vote, with Trustees Robert Milstein and Galen Gockel the ordinance's only supporters.

Following a study session last Wednesday, the ban's defeat seemed likely, after many trustees said they would prefer to look for a compromise solution (see sidebar). Even support from Milstein and Gockel was not decisive, with Gockel calling his vote "symbolic," and Milstein saying he preferred a phased-in ban coupled with an equity assurance program to protect businesses in the case of lost revenues.

At Monday's meeting, Board of Health Chair Lois Halstead asked the trustees to hold off on a vote and give the board time to consider further recommendations.

"Even though the Board of Health remains in support of this ordinance, it has become obvious that there is need for further discussion," she said.

Milstein suggested tabling the discussion, a recommendation that was voted down 4-3; Gockel proposed the exemption process, which was also defeated in a 4-3 vote.

The proposed smoke-free ordinance, recommended by the Board of Health, has drawn strong opposition from local businesses, especially restaurants, and an outpouring of support from many residents and health professionals.

Following the board's decision, Ron Burke, a member of the Campaign for a Smoke-Free Oak Park, said the grassroots organization will regroup and continue to push for a ban, and believes some of the proposed compromise solutions are "worth exploring."

"This is a temporary setback. Oak Park will eventually pass restrictions on smoking," he said, adding that the group is looking to "elevate the issue in the context of the election."

"The VMA-backed candidates [on the board] in particular seem to support business interest over the public interest," he said. "I would never encourage anyone to vote on one issue, but residents in the community want to know where the candidates stand on the issue."

It's possible that discussion on banning smoking in some way will continue in the coming months, but trustees did not lay out a plan for future action Monday, with most board members focusing on the vote before them.

Trustee David Pope said he strongly favored bringing the community together to compromise on the issue, but could not support a complete ban.

"I think getting people around the table would be a worthwhile goal," said Pope, who also voted for motions from both Gockel and Milstein. "Do we want to move toward a smoke-free Oak Park? Yes, I'd like to see that. But there is the issue of economic impact to specific businesses."

Trustee Ray Johnson also said he would consider continuing conversations about the issue, but couldn't vote for the Board of Health recommendation.

"An out right ban is not in our interests. Bringing people together is in the interest of the community," Johnson said.

Voicing the strongest opposition to the ban, and the hostility he said it has generated in the community, was Trustee Gus Kostopulos.

"We're doing a disservice to the businessmen and citizens if we approve this ordinance," he said. "I've never heard this discrimination among groups in the 50 years I've lived here."

Village President Joanne Trapani said the issue was a matter of choice and Trustee Diana Carpenter said she couldn't support legislation that had the potential to close down businesses.

"At first I was in favor of this, but the more I thought about it, it's a choice issue," Trapani said. "Some say Oak Park has been a vanguard. I don't want us to be a vanguard in losing businesses."

"For every fact there's another fact. But it boils down to that I can't sleep at night feeling responsible for one business closing," Carpenter said. "This is a freedom of choice issue."

contact: kgrayson@wjinc.com

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