Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Boiling on the front burner...

Back for another round in the political maelstrom is a smoking ban for Howard County. Inexplicably introduced last night by council Chairman Chris Merdon, the measure is identical to the one proposed by County Executive James Robey last fall, the one that Merdon helped derail in January. Follow that?

The bill would ban smoking in all establishments in Howard County in less than two years. Merdon said he still doesn't support the bill, but with a new council person replacing his crucial third vote -- David Rakes -- he decided to avoid another protracted debate on the matter and do what the Democrats were going to do anyway -- only first.

But if he doesn't support the bill, why introduce it?

"I can't imagine any motive other than a political motive, said Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat who is also vying for county executive. "What's the urgency?" he asked, pointing out that it would not take effect for months.

Ulman may be right. Merdon has said recently that he was the only county executive candidate who actually approved a smoking ban -- a bill that was subsequently vetoed by Robey. These were just political statements designed to hurt Ulman, as he knew of the impending veto and has never really supported a smoking ban anyway.

Merdon opposed Robey's bill last year, arguing that business owners and restaurant patrons should have the right to choose whether to eat in a place that allows smoking. Current Howard law permits smoking in bars and restaurants that have physically separate smoking areas with separate ventilation systems.

..."The new council member will likely determine the fate of the bill," he said, meaning that if the new member votes with the other two Democrats, they would have a 3-2 majority. Western county Republican Charles C. Feaga said he still opposes a smoking ban.
It is pretty clear that he still doesn't support a smoking ban. Maybe he wants to take this issue away from Ulman by claiming he took a leadership position and got the bill passed when others couldn't (or, rather, before others could). So maybe we just have to take his statements last night at face value.

Merdon said he took action to forestall another long dispute over smoking while the council faced the budget and other more important issues. He asked for a suspension of council rules to introduce the last-minute measure, even though he later indicated he would likely not support it

...Merdon said the county executive would re-introduce the bill once another Democrat was appointed to fill Rakes' vacant seat, so he decided to act sooner rather than wait for Robey to do it.

"Obviously, the change in the dynamics on the council has driven me to reintroduce the bill," he said.

But this would mean he's essentially conceded defeat on this issue, which could ultimately benefit him, or could just as easily hurt him, especially if a smoking ban is really what the people want.

When I first read this story, I was inclined to see it only as political maneuvering. And perhaps it still is, but my feeling that is just crass politics is not as strong anymore. I can see it both ways -- that is, as cheap politics or as a politician who, like me, knows the end is in sight and just wants to put this whole smoking issue to bed.

The only thing I can say for certain is we are already in the thick of campaign season, the time when things are almost never as they seem.

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