June 19, 2007

REPRESENTIN’ : A COLUMN ABOUT THE METRO COUNCIL

Politics fit for an ashtrayMonday is a big day for smokers in Louisville. It is an even bigger day for bar and restaurant owners. Monday is not, however, the day the much praised, maligned and ambivalently accepted smoking ban goes into effect — that is next Sunday, July 1. Rather, Monday is the day Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Denise Clayton will decide whether the nearly citywide ban will happen.And why does the fate of the smoking ban rest on a judge’s decision? Stupid-monkey political pandering, that’s why. It is enough to jack up anyone with enough self-esteem left to avoid the we’ll-take-what-we-can-get cliché belched up by “liberals” who have suddenly developed a stomach for a little old-fashioned cronyism, just as long as Butch can’t smoke his Marlboro Reds down at the end of the bar anymore. Hypocrisy tastes just as bad on the way back up, folks. It is perhaps the lowest common denominator of governance that remains consumed with pleasing everyone, and yet that is also the mantra in mainstream politics, national and local. When the Metro Council passed its flaccid first attempt at a smoking ban in November 2005, most of the local business community (and its patrons) gave a bewildered shrug and set about regularly scheduled affairs. That’s because the “ban” was not only profoundly weak, but a transparent, absurd attempt to play favorites in a political popularity contest. It banned smoking in all public buildings except bars, taverns, restaurants that derived at least 25 percent of profits from alcohol, places with permission from Metro government and Churchill Downs. There were exemptions for separately ventilated smoke-rooms, which led a few businesses to install expensive new equipment — in the $30,000 ballpark, some said during committee hearings last year — that would soon become worthless. The “ban” was the product of a group of milksops too timid to put their teeth into something controversial, and too hyper-focused on district-based special interests to do something for the whole of the city. Perhaps they missed the memo that 50 percent of Americans are currently covered by some kind of smoking ban, according to recent figures. Or that the first city in the world to ban smoking in public buildings — San Luis Obispo, Calif. — did so in 1990. Or that both Lexington and Georgetown, Ky., have strong smoking bans. Or that scads of contemporary research shows that smoking bans actually generate more business, not less, in bars and restaurants. This is controversial or dubious only if you’re worried about winning re-election and feel the need to pander. As we know, the council did pass a “comprehensive” ban in October, after vigorous support from Mayor Jerry Abramson and a bunch of council members, mostly Democrats. In what can only be chalked up to the cocksure lobbying of one of the city’s broadest individual economies, Churchill Downs was exempted from the ban (along with tobacco manufacturers, which is obvious). So here we are in court, after the Metro Hospitality Coalition — a group of locally owned bars and restaurants — rightfully sued the city for the double standard the council voted into law by an impressive 19-5 margin. On Monday morning, Judge Clayton will decide whether to grant the Coalition’s request for an injunction, which would prevent the city from enacting the smoking ban until the lawsuit is decided. At its meeting last week, the council tried to amend language in the ordinance to broadside the injunction, which also includes a Fourth Amendment argument about when and how Health Department officials are allowed to inspect buildings. It was tabled. I have long hoped that Louisville (or Kentucky) will step up with the likes of New York, California, Colorado and Delaware, among many others, and pass a real smoking ban — no exceptions, no exemptions. I have made this much clear several times in LEO. We’re almost there. But playing a single favorite is not honest brokering with the hundreds of local businesses that will feel the ban’s effects, good or bad. It suggests a reckless disregard for many of the establishments representing the cultural foundation of this city. The repugnant stink of favoritism is all over this pseudo-comprehensive smoking ban, whose biggest supporters are simply too chicken-shit to remind the folks at Churchill Downs that it, too, is a part of Louisville Metro, not the other way around. Contact the writer at sgeorge@leoweekly.com