Council expands smoking ban to pedestrian plazas

Oct. 1, 2014Houston Chronicle

Main Street Square is now a smoke-free zone under an expanded city ban that council approved Wednesday, marking  just the latest effort from the Parker administration to curb lighting up in public places

The changes to the smoking ordinance are twofold: one expands the ban to Houston’s three so-called “public pedestrian plazas,” streets permanently closed to car traffic but open to pedestrians, and another adds “combustible” and “plant materials” to products included in the smoking ban. City Attorney Dave Feldman introduced those changes last month alongside a proposed ban on synthetic pot, plant material altered by chemicals, that will go to council next week. Feldman said complaints from business owners at Main Street Square about smoking and litter prompted the expanded ordinance.

There are three known areas that fall under the public pedestrian plaza definition: Main Street Square, running along Main Street from Walker to Dallas streets, Dunlavy Street north of Allen Parkway and Walker Street between Dowling and St. Charles streets. Previously,  the city’s smoking ordinance contemplated only tobacco, outlawing smoking within 25 feet of a public facility, places of employment, bars and restaurants, outdoor sports arenas and stadiums, city libraries and parks.

A 10-3 vote Wednesday saw council members Brenda Stardig, Jerry Davis and C.O. “Brad” Bradford vote against the changes. Mayor Annise Parker is on a business trip in Asia.

Though the changes are fairly limited in scope, they sparked a wide-ranging discussion among council members about citizen rights, the merits of previous smoking bans and, in a familiar turn, council’s power.

Council Member Jerry Davis took particular issue with the ban on smoking at plazas, questioning whether it “infringed on people’s rights.”

“We’re talking about principles of freedom,” Davis said. “So the question is, ‘when is it okay to stop someone else’s freedom?’”

Council Member Ellen Cohen rebutted that idea, pointing to the health effects of second-hand smoke.

“When someone’s rights interfere with someone else’s health, that becomes the question,” Cohen said.

Lingering frustration about the recent smoking ban at city parks also came to the fore. Parks director Joe Turner, backed by Parker, made the decision to ban smoking starting  in September at the more than 365 developed parks facilities, which include golf courses and pools.

Turner, like Library Director Rhea Lawson, has the ability to govern and change rules of conduct on grounds without going through City Council.

Though Council Member Mike Laster ultimately voted in favor of the expanded ban, he said he was still bothered by council’s lack of say in the parks decision. The conversation Wednesday reflected “a sense of concern, if not frustration, on the part of council about some actions that have been taken in the last several weeks and months that have, in effect, basically neutered the voice of this council,” Laster said.

The ban on smoking public plazas goes into effect immediately, though it’s not enforceable until signs go up. Council approved an amendment from Council Member Michael Kubosh to drop the fine from up to $2,000 to $500.