Waco City Council split on workplace smoking ban

Waco City Council members were divided Tuesday as the head of the local health district challenged them to throw out the city’s complicated smoking restrictions and ban cigarettes online buy in all indoor workplaces, including bars.

Some said the current regulations are unfair, unenforceable and unwieldy, seeming to ban smoking in restaurants and other public spaces but allowing exemptions based on time of night, number of employees and nine other criteria. The ordinance, passed in 2002, was a diluted version of a Waco-McLennan County Health District proposal to ban public indoor smoking everywhere but in bars.

“I was on the council at the time, and I voted against it, but not because it was too restrictive,” Councilwoman Toni Herbert said in the work session Tuesday. She called it “freakish” and “completely unenforceable” and said a straight-out ban would be better.

Roger Barker, director of the health district, said recent studies have strengthened the argument for protecting employees from secondhand smoke, whether they work in an office, a restaurant or a bar. He said all of Texas’ biggest cities and several of Waco’s peer cities have banned smoking in all workplaces, without negative economic effects on business.

But Councilwoman Alice Rodriguez blasted the idea as an overreach.

“I understand all the health problems,” she said. “But to me, if it’s a restaurant or bar, I can choose to go or not. I feel government shouldn’t be intrusive.”

Councilman Jim Bush said he also had a “big problem” with banning smoking inside bars, though he could support some strengthening of the ordinance.

Mayor Virginia DuPuy argued that people should have the right to work in a smoke-free environment.

“I think about people working for a business who may not have a choice to find another job,” she said.

Councilman Randy Riggs, who pushed for the original ordinance but now supports a stronger measure, said the current maze of regulations does not provide an equal playing field for business. For example, restaurants with fewer than eight employees are not required to comply.

He said people with health issues have to avoid restaurants, bars and other places that have indoor smoking, and that’s discriminatory.

“Just like steps are a challenge for someone in a wheelchair, smoking is a challenge for those people,” he said.

Sammy Citrano, a Waco restaurateur who attended the work session, said he’s not surprised that the health district is pushing a stronger ordinance, but he hopes the council will find a compromise between public health and economic health.

Citrano helped craft the compromise ordinance in 2002, and he since has spent tens of thousands of dollars retrofitting his restaurant, George’s, to have a separate ventilated area for smoking customers. He said he’s worried restaurant owners like him would lose their investments in separate smoking areas, and that smoking customers would go to bars in restaurants in suburbs where indoor smoking is allowed.

He agreed that some minor changes in the ordinance might be appropriate.

In other business Tuesday, the council:

* Passed a billboard ordinance with a “cap and replace” policy meant to gradually reduce sign clutter. Under the new system, companies would have to remove 2 square feet of signage somewhere in Waco to put up 1 square foot of new signage. The ordinance also limits billboards to certain corridors, imposes spacing limits on signs and allows digital billboards in certain circumstances.

The council added an exemption for the two-for-one rule for small billboards that are moved from one location to another, as long as the new sign goes up within a year after the old one is removed.

* Passed a downtown overlay district governing new development in the central business district and the Austin Avenue and Elm Street corridors. The standards require parking to be hidden and new buildings to adjoin the sidewalk. Barbed wire and boarded windows must be removed, but Elm Street property owners will have 24 months to replace boarded windows with glass.

* Rejected the appeal of Minnie Thomas, whose application for a dance hall permit at 901 E. Johnson St. was rejected by staff because of her connections with an East Waco nightclub. Thomas said she hoped to open a “special events” center at the Johnson Street site, near South Loop and East Waco Drive.

In a rare appeal hearing that took nearly two hours, police officers stated that she was involved in her son’s nightclub, Club Legacy, until it was shut down by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission in April. In less than three years, the club had more than 220 police calls, with incidents including discharge of firearms, assault of police officers, riots with more than 100 participants and a stabbing.

“It was one of the most dangerous nightclubs we’ve ever had to deal with,” said police Sgt. Jared Wallace. He said that in the March incident, 200 people surrounded 18 police officers as they detained a stabbing suspect. As the crowd moved in, the suspect escaped and was on the loose for six days, Wallace said.

Thomas’ attorney, Fred Brown, said he wouldn’t defend Club Legacy.

“You couldn’t pay me enough for that,” he said.

But he said that wasn’t his client’s club. Minnie Thomas and her husband, Melvin Thomas, were planning to open a facility for reunions, special celebrations and Baylor University’s Greek events, not a nightclub for young people, he said.

He said the Thomases were involved in Club Legacy, but only as concerned parents trying to help their son with a business that was difficult to manage.

Council members voted 4-2 to deny the appeal, with Councilman Wilbert Austin and Toni Herbert dissenting.

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