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Clayton's hope that neighboring municipalities adopt smoking ban may be just a pipe dream

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 29, 2009 - Clayton officials have given the initial thumbs up to an ordinance to ban smoking in many public places, and they seem poised to finalize the bill this summer. But there are still lingering questions: Will the Board of Aldermen make more concessions to restaurateurs beyond allowing smoking on patios? Might the next draft expressly address lighting up in public parks and other green spaces? How will the city follow through on its promise to help ease the transition for business owners?

The question also remains whether Clayton's likely course of action will spur other local governments to follow suit. Clayton Mayor Linda Goldstein has said that the city is willing to go it alone, but she reiterated recently that "a widespread ban is more ideal." (Ballwin is the only municipality in St. Louis County with a smoking ban.)

Goldstein was among five mayors of adjacent cities -- Clayton, Creve Coeur, Olivette, Overland and University City -- to write a letter earlier this year to the St. Louis County Council urging it to enact a smoking ban. The council has rejected such proposals in recent years, and an aide to Charlie Dooley told the Beacon recently that the county executive believes that any smoking prohibition should be enacted on a statewide level.

Where does that leave Clayton? In the role of neighborhood cheerleader, perhaps.

In announcing July 1, 2010, as the date that Clayton's ban would go into effect, Goldstein said she hoped the extra time would give the economy a chance to rebound -- and neighboring municipalities a chance to pass similar legislation.

Goldstein wasn't alone in her call to action. Alderwoman Michelle Harris said, "We challenge surrounding communities to join us by 2010." Her colleague Cynthia Garnholz added, "To our neighbors, I say be bold and help in this effort."

But if Clayton officials are expecting a domino effect, they could be in for a letdown. Several current and former mayors who signed the letter with Goldstein said that while they applaud Clayton's initial step forward, they are still focused on getting the county to act first.

Creve Coeur Mayor Harold Dielmann said he is holding out hope for a widespread ban that would include St. Louis County and St. Louis. He said Creve Coeur isn't considering a local ban. "Unless everyone goes in together it's going to hurt individual cities," Dielmann said.

That sentiment, shared by many Clayton restaurant owners who spoke up during the city's public hearings, is echoed by Jim Beck, mayor of Richmond Heights. "There needs to be a county and citywide ban," he said. "Otherwise for a municipality, you put your businesses at a disadvantage because a portion of customers will just go next door" where smoking is allowed. "From an economic standpoint, to do anything that may slow business even further would be counterproductive."

Beck said he doesn't expect the Richmond Heights City Council to address a local ban anytime soon. He said he does expect bans eventually to be in place in the county and city -- just not before summer 2010.

Jean Antoine, an Olivette City Council member who as mayor was a leader in the effort to persuade the county to enact a smoking ban, said he recognizes that evidence shows that some municipal smoking bans don't lead to declines in business. But, in the council's view, even the risk of losing business is enough to squelch serious talk of a local ban.

"We don't have the business center of Clayton, and any negative impact would hit our community hard," Antoine said. "The council is sensitive to this issue and is entertaining options. But we have great hopes that the county and city would join together and move this thing forward so that it would be out of the economic realm and back into a conversation about public safety."

Antoine said although he'd prefer to see regional or state action, if it became apparent that those doors were shut, "I'd go the same route that Clayton went."

Michael Schneider, mayor of Overland, said that while he supports smoke-free legislation, he is waiting for someone on the council to take the lead on local legislation. So far no one has.

"They know how I feel, but I don't want to ram something down their throats," Schneider said. "It's an uphill swim for me at this point."

Schneider said he doesn't think city officials are ready to follow Clayton, in large part because of the economic concerns.

The mayor of University City couldn't be reached for comment.

Meanwhile, in St. Louis, Alderwoman Lyda Krewson, D-28th Ward, is still waiting on a firm date for a hearing on a bill she drafted that is broadly similar to Clayton's proposal. Krewson has said that St. Louis isn't prepared to go it alone. The ordinance would only go into effect if similar legislation is enacted by the county that bans smoking in enclosed public places.

Krewson said she'd rather see a ban be enacted at the state level. But she's not holding out hope. Clayton, she added, has already helped to "advance the discussion" about smoke-free legislation.

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