Villa Rica’s tough anti-smoking ordinance is back in effect now that the mayor’s veto of an amended version has been sustained.
The City Council failed to override Mayor Gil McDougal’s veto of an amended version of the 2012 anti-smoking ordinance that would have made it friendlier to restaurants and bars. Only two of the five council members voted to override the veto, but such a motion requires four votes under the city charter.
The vote took place on Tuesday during the regular monthly council meeting.
On Aug. 28, McDougal vetoed the amended version of a 2012 ordinance that had effectively banned smoking in all public spaces in the city. That new version of the law, adopted by council on Aug. 25, was friendlier to restaurants and other establishments that cater to those over the age of 21.
The “City of Villa Rica Smoke-Free Air Ordinance” was first considered by City Council in 2012 in response to a similarly named state law enacted in 2005. Yet it had laid inactive until May when McDougal, responding to a complaint about outdoor public smoking, ordered that it be enforced.
Two downtown businesses immediately objected, both restaurants and bars that cater to an adult clientele.
The state anti-smoking law carves out an exception for restaurants if their service is restricted to legal adults. Villa Rica’s ordinance, however, only allows restaurants to permit smoking if they have an outdoor smoking section — and then only if their outdoor service area is half the size of their indoor service area.
Since neither of those establishments meet that requirement, they argued that enforcing the 2012 law would harm their business, exacerbating the harm they had already faced due to the pandemic-induced economic slowdown.
When the council voted to amend the ordinance on Aug. 25, some members cited that they did not want to interfere with the business choices of private owners. This view was echoed by several public comments made at the three different council meetings at which this matter was discussed.
But McDougal, in his veto statement, noted that the council often takes votes that impact the choices of business owners. He noted that in amending the ordinance, the council was choosing to override the rules applied to other downtown businesses to favor two others.
Before the vote, McDougal said that the council’s amended version “made the law worse than it already was,” because the ordinance was already inconsistent in allowing an exception for restaurants using a “formula that really made no sense.”
Ward 5 council member Danny Carter introduced the motion to override the veto. While saying he is not himself a smoker, he felt that business owners should have the choice to allow smoking.
“For me, this is kind of discrimination against smokers,” Carter said, adding “I don’t want to discriminate against anybody.”
Carter was joined by Ward 3 Council Member Leslie McPherson, who agreed that business owners should have a freedom of choice “and we ought to leave them alone.”
But Ward 4 Council Member Michael Young said he wondered about the “right to choose” argument when it seemingly applied only to restaurants.
“Nobody’s arguing the right to choose to smoke in a supermarket, or a dentist’s office or a lawyer’s office, or retail store,” he said. “So, what about the right to choose for those things? You accept that the state of Georgia governs your lives on those things; what’s so special about a restaurant?”
When it was time to vote on Carter’s motion, only he and McPherson voted in favor. Young opposed the veto vote, joined by Ward 3 Council Member Matthew Momtahan and Ward 1 Council Member Shirley Marchman, who had abstained during the vote to amend the ordinance.
Because the council failed to override the mayor’s veto of the amended bill, the original, tougher anti-smoking bill goes back into effect — even though it has never really been enforced until this year.
In fact, the 2012 ordinance was never officially passed by the council. When it was first brought up eight years ago, the council tabled a vote. But in 2016, the smoking law somehow became bundled with other ordinances that the council approved to be engrossed into the Municode. A subsequent meeting of the council — specifically set to consider the smoking law — also did not result in a final approval.
But city officials have taken the position that however the law got on the books, it is nevertheless the law and should be enforced.
McDougal, whose enforcement of the ordinance had slackened while the council debated amending the law, signaled during the council meeting that the law will now be more uniformly and strictly enforced.
Nevertheless, the debate may not be over. Carter, noting that the mayor had said he had found inconsistencies in the 2012 law, suggested that the ordinance be looked at again to fix those issues.
No decision about whether that will happen was made, as the council members quickly moved on to other items on the agenda.