Proponents of a ban on smoking in District bars and restaurants are divided over strategy, with some D.C. Council members pushing for a vote as early as next week and others favoring a slower track.
One indication of the split is a letter that council members Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) and Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), both ban supporters, wrote Friday to council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), the proposal's leading opponent.
Patterson and Mendelson offered to exempt cigar bars, retail tobacco stores, and rooftop and outdoor-patio sections of bars and restaurants from any smoking ban. They said they also would delay the measure's implementation for four months to allow businesses to prepare.
They also offered to vote against any effort next week to bypass Schwartz's committee and bring an emergency bill directly to the full council. Schwartz, chairman of the Public Works and the Environment Committee, has said she will block legislation from reaching the full council.
Schwartz said yesterday that she was glad to see the new proposal, adding that "the compromise they offer is a starting point, not the end point.''
But council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large), another ban supporter, said he intends to try to push the ban through the council on an emergency basis at the July 6 council meeting. Emergency bills do not go through the committee process and require approval by a two-thirds majority. They are in effect for 90 days.
"I'm interested in moving the issue," Brown said. "You have nine people on the council saying this is an important issue. Let's put our cards on the table."
Other ban proponents said they don't think there are nine votes for an emergency bill. Patterson said she would not support Brown's bill, arguing that an emergency measure would not allow businesses time to prepare.
Mendelson said he is undecided. A defeat next week could slow the momentum for a ban, he said.
"An emergency [bill] that doesn't succeed would temporarily put a ding in the momentum,'' Mendelson said. "Overall, I think we're dealing from a position of strength. [Schwartz] is talking about a compromise, and I think that is because she is getting a lot of criticism and it is clear that the council is going to pass something.''
Patterson questioned the wisdom of passing a smoking ban that will expire after 90 days if the council has not enacted permanent legislation by then. She and others said they are wary of doing anything that would reduce the power of committee chairmen. After all, 10 of the 13 council members head committees.
"I will not support an emergency [bill], period,'' said Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who said he will support a ban if it goes through the committee process. "I don't think [emergency legislation] should be utilized to circumvent the will of a committee chair.''
Patterson even suggested that proponents could introduce a bill to criminalize smoking in bars and restaurants -- if only to get the measure referred to Mendelson's Judiciary Committee, where it could be amended.
Brown, a freshman council member who does not chair a committee, noted that the council bypassed committees this year to pass emergency bills on mayoral exploratory committees and the rail transport of hazardous materials through the city. There is no reason it cannot do the same on the smoking ban, he said.
"Secondhand smoke is killing people,'' Brown said. "That is an emergency.''
Brown said he has not counted votes to see whether there is a two-thirds majority in favor of the bill. And even colleagues who agree with him on the issue wonder why Brown has not coordinated or even discussed his plans with other ban supporters.
"You can't tell one council member not to do something. At the end of the day, he's elected to do what he thinks is in the best interest of the city,'' said Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), one of the authors of ban legislation two years ago. He said he will vote for Brown's bill if he makes some changes.