Smoking ban tabled after heated debate

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June 5, 2014 // UPDATED 2:46 pm - June 13, 2014
By: Ben Johnson
Ben Johnson

A proposal that would’ve completely banned all tobacco use and smoking – including the use of e-cigarettes – in Minneapolis parks was tabled after commissioners couldn’t agree on the best way to enforce the ban.

At-large Commissioner John Erwin, who authored the proposed policy along with District 2 Commissioner Jon Olson, removed two provisions from the policy right before its June 4 public hearing.

The provisions Erwin removed would have made Park Board employees responsible for enforcing the ban, and gave Park Police the authority to remove people who refused to stop smoking from park property.

“Frankly, I don’t think the public would have any concern over removing those provisions,” said Erwin. “I think the public would be more concerned if the police had the option to forcibly remove someone for smoking a cigarette.”

Erwin said he and Commissioner Olson decided to tone down the ban’s enforcement after checking with Brian Rice, the Park Board’s lawyer.

“Concerns I had with this was that we’re expecting our employees to be the ones to enforce this policy,” said Rice. ““Confronting citizens in the park can be a very difficult and challenging circumstance.”

Erwin said that the Park Police’s recent wrongful arrest of Libertarian governor candidate Chris Holbrook for distributing campaign literature at Lake Calhoun also factored into his decision.

Problems with the current ban      

In 2010 the Park Board enacted its current ban, which prohibits smoking or any tobacco use within 100 feet of any Park Board building, playground, beach or wading pool, and within 50 feet of any youth athletic field or contest. It also bans smoking at all of the Park Board’s gardens (Sculpture Garden, Rose Garden, Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden, etc), the Lake Harriet Bandstand and Wirth Recreation Area.

Enforcement for the Park Board’s current no-smoking policy already gives Park Police the option to “immediately eject” any person violating it, but Park Police Chief Jason Ohotto couldn’t recall any instance where that actually happened. When asked at the hearing, Ohotto appeared to be against a full ban.

“The thing that is most important to me is preventing violence in parks, and I’m not prepared to take officers away from that to go out and look for smokers,” he said.

The commissioners representing the two southernmost districts of Minneapolis, District 5 Commissioner Steffanie Musich and District 6 Commissioner Brad Bourn, pushed hardest for a ban with strong punitive punishment.

Musich said she regularly sees people smoking at her son’s baseball games, at the beach, near concession stands and park employees smoking outside of Park Board buildings, all violations of the current ban.

“Since we already have people blatantly disregarding the current policy, I would like to see us try to enforce the current policy by clearly designating areas where people cannot smoke, or that we put in place a full ban that can actually be enforced,” she said.

Bourn attempted to upgrade the smoking ban from a policy to an ordinance, which would allow police to issue citations and collect fines from offenders. That measure failed, and Erwin’s proposal for a ban with weaker enforcement also failed, so the measure was sent back to committee, where it will be put on hold indefinitely.

“A simple request for people not to use tobacco isn’t strong enough, and doesn’t constitute a ban,” said Bourn. “Simply put, this policy wasn’t ready for primetime.”