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Hollywood Casino St. Louis

Dealer Po Sun lays out cards for a pair of women playing 21 on the gaming floor at the Hollywood Casino St. Louis on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013. Photo By David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

ST. LOUIS COUNTY • A committee funded by the owner of the Hollywood Casino turned in on Wednesday almost 53,000 signatures to try to put new casino smoking restrictions on the Nov. 6 countywide election ballot.

Meanwhile, the mayor of Maryland Heights — where the casino is situated — has asked the County Election Board to disqualify from the same ballot a much stricter and widespread smoking ban promoted by a coalition of health groups, alleging several technical flaws with its petitions.

The health coalition had turned in signatures July 31. Both measures are proposed county charter amendments.

The version submitted Wednesday to the election board office would bar smoking from 50 percent of casino gaming floors but allow people to continue to light up in the remaining half.

“Our ballot measure will provide voters with a more reasonable approach that allows the county’s casinos to continue to cater to both smoking and non-smoking customers,” said Jeff Morris, a spokesman for Penn National Gaming, which owns Hollywood and is buying River City Casino in Lemay.

Morris said the measure also would help the casinos avoid drops in business that would result in job losses and cuts in revenue to local governments.

Penn National has spent $400,000 so far on the petition effort.

Karen Englert, an official with the American Heart Association — the lead group in the health coalition — accused the casino company of putting “profits over people” with their proposal.

“Our focus has always been on providing protections for all workers” and customers of a business, Englert said. “There’s no safe level of secondhand smoke.”

The health coalition’s proposition would bar smoking entirely from casino gaming floors and all other indoor public places across the county.

The measure would end an exemption for casinos and dozens of bars in the current county smoke-free law in effect since 2011.

The challenge to the health coalition’s proposal was filed July 31 by Marc Ellinger, a Jefferson City lawyer representing Maryland Heights Mayor Mike Moeller.

In a letter to the Election Board and County Counselor Peter Krane, Ellinger alleges that the coalition committed six different errors with its petition drive.

For example, Ellinger said the petition improperly included a ballot title, something that Ellinger said can only be prepared by the county counselor.

Englert, with the health coalition, said that people signing the petition clearly “understood what they were signing” and that any mistakes in the petition process were insignificant “scrivener’s errors.”

She also questioned the mayor’s role in submitting the challenge.

Moeller said that Ellinger’s law firm was being paid for by the casino firm and that no city funds were used to pay for the challenge. He said he preferred the casino-funded proposition because it would satisfy both smokers and nonsmokers and would protect his city from tax revenue cuts.

To qualify a charter amendment for the ballot, signatures are required from registered voters equal to 5 percent of the total vote for governor in each of five of the seven County Council districts. That amounts to more than 26,000 signatures.

The health coalition also has turned in signatures to put a similar countywide smoking ban on the November ballot in St. Charles County.

There’s also an effort to put a weaker alternative on the ballot there.

A former Republican state legislator, Carl Bearden, said Wednesday that he was continuing to talk with St. Charles County Council members about putting a smoking ban with some exemptions on the ballot.

Mark Schlinkmann is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.