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Smokers react to newly approved O'Fallon ban
RYAN PREWITT / JOURNAL Dan Fitzgerald smokes a cigarette Friday at KT's Sports Bar and Restaurant in O'Fallon.

A petition drive could delay enforcement of O'Fallon's new indoor smoking ban. Opponents are seeking to repeal the law that voters on April 5 approved by 72.6 percent.

On Wednesday, a group called "Repeal the Ban" filed to circulate a referendum petition to repeal an ordinance prohibiting smoking in indoor workplaces and enclosed public spaces. The law is scheduled to take effect at 12:01 a.m. June 16.

But according to rules outlined in O'Fallon's city charter, the ordinance could be suspended from taking effect if a referendum petition challenging the law is filed with the city clerk. It would remain suspended until the repeal was put to a public vote.

The three-member petition committee includes Carrie Ellis, Roman Bettag and Marina Bishop.

Ellis, of O'Fallon, is leading the repeal effort. Ellis is an accounts payable clerk for a sheet metal company. She identifies herself as a non-smoker. Ellis said she tried to educate herself about the proposed ordinance before the April election, but became frustrated with the lack of information available. Many friends and neighbors did not even know the proposal was on the ballot, she said. Many voters probably did not realize how restrictive the bill was, she said.

"I feel like, if there had been more details out front for voters, the outcome would have been different," Ellis said.

Craig Boring, American Cancer Society regional vice president, was one of the Smoke-Free O'Fallon committee members that organized the petition placing the smoking ban on the April ballot. Boring said smoking ban supporters talked to citizens throughout O'Fallon prior to the election, educating them about the ordinance. They received "a lot of positive feedback" that manifested itself on election day, he said. Since the ordinance's victory, many people have expressed thanks, Boring said.

"We are confident that this is what the people of O'Fallon really want," he said Friday. "We are confident the citizens of O'Fallon will continue to support this in an overwhelming majority."

Boring said people trying to repeal the ban are acting within their rights under the city charter. But he and other smoke-free supporters wish opponents would have tried to have this conversation before the election, Boring said.

O'Fallon Mayor Bill Hennessy on Thursday said he talked to the Smoke-Free O'Fallon petition committee before the election and asked them to compromise, allowing exemptions for certain businesses. The committee members refused, he said.

The Repeal the Ban petitioners want to place the issue on the Nov. 8 ballot. To do that, they must submit the required signatures by June 19. But how many signatures are required? City and county officials disagree.

O'Fallon Councilman Jim Pepper, Ward 2, said only 564 signatures are required — 7 percent of the votes cast in the last mayoral election. Pepper, who supports the repeal effort, on Thursday said organizers plan to collect at least a couple thousand signatures, just to be sure they have enough.

But that might not cut it, according to Rich Chrismer, St. Charles County Election Authority director. Chrismer on Friday said he believes O'Fallon's charter requires 7,095 signatures — 14 percent of the city's total qualified voters. The signature requirement is greater because November would be a special election, Chrismer said. Pepper disagreed that November would be a special election.

O'Fallon spokesman Tom Drabelle on Friday said city attorneys were examining these questions and would share their findings with the petitioners next week.

Ellis said the petitioners would wait to hear from the city before deciding whether to proceed with their referendum or wait for another election to launch an initiative petition to enact a new ordinance.

Chrismer said putting the repeal on the November ballot would cost O'Fallon at least $157,500. He said the city should plan for $170,000, to be safe.

Most cities place municipal items on the April ballot, Chrismer said. The cities share the cost of the April election. But in November, O'Fallon would probably be the only city with a municipal ballot issue. The city would have to pay the entire cost of the special election, Chrismer said.

Ellis said she does not take the expense lightly. But the petition process itself costs the city nothing, she said. If the petition fails to generate support, there would be nothing lost in trying — except for the petitioners' time and effort, she said.

O'Fallon business owners and fraternal organizations are joining Ellis in her fight. About 40 opponents of the smoking ban discussed their strategy Thursday night at VFW Post 5077 in O'Fallon. Several smoked throughout the discussion, something they would not be able to do if the ban takes effect.

The VFW allows smoking in its members' club. It also sets aside a smoking area during bingo games in its rental hall. The smoking ban would prohibit smoking in both areas. The VFW donates bingo proceeds to charity.

Jim Mueller, the post's legal adviser, said many bingo players and bar customers would go elsewhere.

"In effect, it's probably going to shut us down," Mueller said Thursday.

Mueller, a past national commander of the VFW, said he had put 40 years of his life into the organization. Other business owners had poured their life savings into their restaurants and bars, he said.

"It is wrong to dictate to them how to conduct their business," he said. "It should be their choice whether to allow smoking or not. I served in Vietnam and fought for these rights."

Mark Northrup, president of Elks Lodge 2587, said the smoking ban would also hurt his lodge's bingo receipts, which total $3,000 a month. About 40 percent of the lodge's bingo players smoke, he said, puffing on a cigar.

Johnny Russo, co-owner of Here's Johnny's Bar and Grill in O'Fallon, said the ban would reduce his revenue. "I've got to do whatever I can to get it repealed," he said. "We have 35 employees that are banking on us staying open."

Jackie Wilson owns Motley's Pub in O'Fallon. Wilson said 90 percent of her bar customers smoke. Many have told her they plan to go to bars in St. Peters and Wentzville if the O'Fallon law takes effect.

For 11 years, Sandy Brackman has tended bar at VFW Post 5077. If smoking is banned, Brackman said the club would close within a year.

"That means I will lose my job," she said. "Who is going to hire a 61-year-old bartender? I could become a greeter at Walmart, but my income will be cut in half."