2013 Look Back: New council pivots on smoking ban; Casper group calls foul

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

Turnover on the Casper City Council in January reignited debate over a 2012 indoor smoking ban, and the results of a second petition attempt in less than a year are now mired in a lawsuit.

Casper resident and former Councilwoman Kim Holloway filed the lawsuit asking for nearly 100 disqualified signatures to be counted.

Holloway has filed a motion asking the judge to agree there is a dispute of the facts between the two parties and asking for her day in court. The city has filed a motion to dismiss the case and for summary judgment in its favor, according to the city manager's office.

“If it survives that, then, yes, I believe they will set February or March for a trial date, depending on how busy the court is,” Holloway said.

Before 2012, the last time Casper considered a smoking ban was more than a decade ago. The council's smoke-free ordinance in 2000 exempted bars, retail tobacco businesses, special clubs and restaurants with a capacity of 50 or fewer. It was later overturned by voters.

The latest spark can be traced back to a 2010 council decision to reject a proposed smoking ban in Conwell Park across from the Wyoming Medical Center. Later that year, the group Smoke Free Natrona County pushed for the appointed members of the Casper-Natrona County Board of Health to consider banning smoking in all indoor businesses and near entrances.

The board rejected the idea, but anti-smoking advocates remained undeterred.

Letter campaigns, public opinion polls and air-quality studies supporting opposition to indoor smoking kept the debate in the public eye throughout 2011. By February 2012, the council had drafted a public smoking ban. By spring 2012, it had agreed to exempt smoke shops, private clubs and electronic cigarettes from the ban.

Three contentious readings of the proposed ban followed. People on both sides of the debate packed the council meeting room, and debates went for hours as person after person stepped to the podium to have their say.

The debate often got ugly, with some people calling the ban fascist and invoking comparisons to the Nazi regime. Opponents declared the smoking ban was stripping away business owners’ rights and encouraged nonsmokers to exercise choice by going to nonsmoking establishments; they decried government overreach. Proponents insisted it was a public health issue for patrons and employees.

Only two council members, including incumbent Paul Bertoglio, voted against the ban. Kenyne Schlager, Charlie Powell and Holloway voted for it. Keith Goodenough abstained, citing a conflict of interest with his taxi company, which might benefit from smokers traveling out of town to drink.

The proposal passed in June (2012), but the council suspended the ban until Sept. 1 so opponents could have time for a referendum attempt.

Smoking ban opponents, led by Pat Sweeney, the owner of Wonder Bar, Poor Boy’s Steakhouse, Parkway Plaza Hotel and Convention Centre and All That Jazz, gathered 3,600 signatures, but less than half were confirmed. The petition drive failed by 412 signatures.

Three proponents of the smoking ban — Holloway, Kate Sarosy and Maury Daubin — decided not to run for another term on the council. Bill Brauer, who voted against the ban, was defeated by Craig Hedquist. Stephen Cathey, Daniel Sandoval and Bob Hopkins joined the board after winning election in November 2012.

Three weeks later, bar owners confronted the new council, upset about the ban’s effects on their businesses.

“It is totally destroying my business,” Sandbar Lounge and Frosty’s owner Nancy Goddard said at the time.

Owners reported revenue losses between 9 and 22 percent.

Sweeney said some of that could be because of new businesses in town, but he attributed at least 40 percent of losses to the ban.

“The change in [council] personnel brought in people who had property rights more firmly in their philosophy,” Councilman Goodenough said. “The health angle became less important than the property rights angle.”

Attempts by the Star-Tribune to discover whether the new ban hurt local businesses were inconclusive. Opponents expected DUIs in Casper, Mills and Evansville to rise as people drove outside Casper city limits to smoke while they drank. DUIs were actually down in the months after the ban. On the other hand, beer sales patterns suggested Mills and Evansville had seen increases, while Casper’s former smoking venues had generally declined.

Over the next couple of months, the debate shifted toward whether to repeal the law in its entirety or to introduce amendments addressing bar owners’ concerns.

By spring 2013, the first reading of several amendments took place. Despite a major storm, 40 people showed up – many of the same faces that had debated many of the same points last time.

This year, though, the result was different. The council voted five to four to amend the smoking ban and exempt bars.

“I think the effect of that was incredibly demoralizing and deflating to people who worked on getting [the ban] passed in the first place,” Holloway said.

After more than four years of battling, Smoke Free Natrona County activists debated whether it was even worth a referendum effort.

In June, while smokers celebrated the weakening of the ban by lighting up in their favorite bars, Holloway and a small coalition calling themselves Keep Casper Smoke Free scrambled to drum up enough signatures to force a referendum.

“Those in favor of the comprehensive ban got caught by surprise,” Goodenough said. “I think that’s one reason they were so irate.”

The anti-smoking coalition came up with more than 3,000 signatures by July but, after the usual slew of rejections, the group fell 61 votes short.

In the wake of the failed petition drive, smoking ban supporters decided to adapt the strategy of smoking ban opponents from the previous year and recruit council candidates willing to, yet again, reverse the tide.

Everyone except Holloway.

“Talking to and knowing the people who support this effort, I can’t give up,” Holloway said.

With Keep Casper Smoke Free’s support, Holloway questioned the city administrative service director’s methods and demanded a recount.

Holloway challenged 98 of the rejected signatures. In August, V.H. McDonald, the city's administrative services director, told the Star-Tribune he was confident in his initial count.

McDonald said staff verified signatures against voter registration files. Names that did not exactly match the registered spelling or address were not counted.

Holloway then filed a lawsuit with the Seventh Judicial Court in Natrona County, claiming McDonald “exceeded his authority.”

In response, the city said the state court has no right to review the complaint.