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Petitions target smoking ban: Fargo bar and truck stop exemption sought; voters likely to have last say

Fargo city commissioners have approved a public indoor workplace smoking ban, but residents still may get a chance to vote on the issue this November.


Fargo city commissioners have approved a public indoor workplace smoking ban, but residents still may get a chance to vote on the issue this November.

A handful of local bar owners and residents began circulating petitions Friday night and plan to present them - along with a proposed ordinance seeking a smoking ban exemption for bars and truck stops - to the commission Monday night.

From there, a number of things could happen, though a public vote appears to be a foregone conclusion, according to Fargo City Attorney Garylle Stewart and City Auditor Steve Sprague. Here are some possibilities:

E Commissioners could decide they want to exempt bars from a smoking ban after all and accept the group's proposed ordinance. Commissioners could not make any changes to the group's proposal, according to Fargo's Home Rule Charter.

The commission already rejected the idea of exempting bars July 6, just before voting 3-2 in favor of the all-encompassing public indoor workplace smoking ban.


E Commissioners could reject the ordinance but decide themselves to place the issue on the ballot for a public vote.

E Commissioners could do nothing, and after 21 days the issue would automatically be sent to the public for a vote - assuming the group gets the 1,880 valid signatures required to initiate a measure on the ballot.

"We don't see that as a problem at all," said Randy Thorson, who owns several Fargo bars and restaurants.

Already, more than 1,000 signatures have been gathered, said Thorson, a third-place finisher in June's City Commission race.

Though signatures are on schedule to be turned in Monday, they won't be validated by that time. Validation has to be done through the city auditor's office and can take about a week, Sprague said.

In the spirit of the law, however, commissioners should not move forward on their own ordinance, Stewart said. They had planned to have the ordinance's second reading Monday.

By approving another ordinance, it could thwart the right of the people to initiate the measure, Stewart said.

The group's proposed ordinance draws the distinction between bars and restaurants using the city's liquor licenses as a guide. Those with the Class A and AB liquor licenses - or bars that don't require food sales - would be exempt from the smoking ban, along with truck stops.


Currently, the number of A and AB licenses allowed in Fargo is capped at eight and 22, respectively, though the city additionally has 11 Class A licenses specifically for private clubs.

In general, bar/restaurant combinations would not be allowed to have smoking. However, there are a handful of these businesses that have Class A liquor licenses - for example, the Olive Garden, Paradiso, Red Lobster, the Ground Round and Buffalo Wild Wings.

A few others - Fargo Cork and Cleaver, the OB Grill, Pepper's American Café and Seasons at Rose Creek - have AB licenses.

Fargo Mayor Bruce Furness said he likes the idea of leaving bars out of the smoking ban, but said he wouldn't want these restaurants holding Class A and AB licenses to be exempt.

The city's cigar bar also would be covered under the proposed ordinance. J.T. Cigarro has an AB license.

Thorson said his hope is that commissioners will approve the new ordinance, eliminating the need for a public vote. He calls the ordinance a common-sense approach that allows people to still have a choice, yet doesn't force anyone out of business.

A complete smoking ban would wipe out most freestanding bars, Thorson said.

Commissioners Linda Coates, Thomas Lane and Mike Williams - who voted for the indoor workplace smoking ban July 6 - still say they don't want bars exempt.


Williams, however, said he thinks it's good if Fargo residents vote on the issue.

Lane and Coates said they would rather see the commission continue with its public indoor workplace smoking ban that's set to take effect July 1, 2005, at the latest and Sept. 1, 2004, at the earliest. The exact date would depend on what West Fargo, Moorhead and Dilworth do.

The citizens are expecting the commission to make a decision one way or the other, Lane said.

"That's why commissioners are elected ... to make tough decisions," he said.

Coates agrees.

She said she sees this as a health issue, so why look out for one business's employee and not another.

Both said they don't have a problem with an issue being referred to the ballot after a decision is made, but don't like the idea of an initiated measure.

In order to get the issue on the November general election ballot, signatures need to be turned in to the county no later than Sept. 3. Any delays in gathering or verifying signatures, or any delays by the commission could push them past the deadline, Sprague said.


If that happened, voters still could have their say, but the city would have to hold a special election, which could cost taxpayers about $30,000. By getting it on the November ballot, the city only incurs nominal fees, no more than a couple hundred dollars, Sprague said.

Petitions will continue to be circulated throughout the week at local bars and truck stops, said Pat Wilson, manager of the Teamsters club and an organizer of the petition drive.

On bingo nights at Teamsters, Wilson estimates that

75 percent to 85 percent of his patrons smoke. Already on Monday afternoon, he said he gathered 30 signatures in just over an hour.

Wilson hopes the petitions will send commissioners a clear message.

"Don't tell us how to run our businesses," he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mary Jo Almquist at (701) 241-5531


Randy Thorson

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