Officials report few problems with county's smoke-free ordinance

A month into Beltrami County's stricter smoke-free ordinance, officials report few problems with compliance. "It's gone rather well, and there's been a ton of voluntary compliance," County Board Chairman Jim Heltzer said during the County Board's...

A month into Beltrami County's stricter smoke-free ordinance, officials report few problems with compliance.

"It's gone rather well, and there's been a ton of voluntary compliance," County Board Chairman Jim Heltzer said during the County Board's retreat on Tuesday.

Still, he predicts the board's work isn't done, that commissioners will revisit the ordinance to make changes. But not soon.

"We don't want to push the envelope until we see what kind of state law is passed before we fiddle with our ordinance," Heltzer said.

The county approved its ordinance in August 2004 -- on a 3-2 vote with Heltzer supporting -- which took effect in two phases. The first phase prohibited smoking in most bars, restaurants and work places, but allowed smoking in bars and restaurants from 8 p.m. to 3 a.m.


The second phase, which took effect Jan. 1, banned smoking at all times from bars and restaurants, and extended the ban to hotel and motel guest rooms, rented or leased resort cabins and dormitory rooms.

The ordinance, however, does allow for construction of a special "smoking room" that is enclosed from all other areas, is less than 30 percent of the entire bar or restaurant seating and prohibits minors at any time.

It's the last provision that is apparently the most confusing.

"There are complaints that the description of the room in the ordinance isn't specific enough," Heltzer said Friday in an interview. "We will have to go back and re-write that portion, being more specific about the room requirements."

But that's all on hold until the Minnesota Legislature adjourns. As of late this week, it seemed to be on a fast track to approving a statewide smoke-free ban for bars, restaurants and work places.

A Minnesota House panel approved its bill 12-6, but turned aside efforts to allow bar and restaurant owners to install ventilation equipment to mitigate secondhand smoke. The bill, however, does allow smoking in tribally run facilities, such as casinos.

The Senate is expected to take up its version of the Freedom to Breathe Act next week.

"We're asking people to hold off until we know," Heltzer said Friday, referring to the ability under the Beltrami County ordinance to construct a separate smoking room with ventilating equipment. "With some costing $20,000 or more, it's not worth doing until we know what the state law will be."


Heltzer told commissioners Tuesday that he helped draft a letter to be sent next week by the County Public Health Nursing Service to all county bars and restaurants essentially telling them to hold off on such things as building smoking rooms.

Heltzer asked if fellow commissioners had a problem with his sending the letter under his signature as chairman of the Beltrami County Board of Health, which is also the County Board, and none responded.

Currently three places covered under the ordinance meet the requirements for a smoking room, he said, listing Bemidji Bowl, Bemidji Eagles Club and Keg 'N Cork.

Commissioner Quentin Fairbanks questioned those provisions, saying that in Blackduck, the Pond bar and the American Legion have smoking rooms but can't get certified by the county.

"Those places are as good as the Eagles, which is a poor example," Fairbanks said. "It is not smoke-free. How will we enforce this? We rush through these things (passing ordinances) then we look at enforcement separately."

While the ordinance doesn't specify smoking room requirements other than it be closed off and have "negative air pressure," Heltzer said the county is following provisions of the Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act, and that a contractor with certain certifications must sign off on the work.

That's apparently why the Blackduck facilities aren't in compliance, Heltzer thought, and why the county ordinance needs to be more specific.

Violations of the stricter ordinance since Jan. 1 have been light, Heltzer added, saying he recently met with County Attorney Tim Faver and County Sheriff Phil Hodapp to discuss enforcement of the ordinance.


In practice, it isn't the intent of commissioners that deputies spend their time tracking down illegal smokers.

"We would send a series of letters for non-compliance, each more serious," Heltzer said. "After that point, Sheriff Hodapp is suggesting we pull their liquor or restaurant license."

"The law enforcement protocol to respond has worked relatively well," Faver said, with deputies answering calls of ordinance violations but not placing a priority on those calls over other more pressing calls. "Our goal is to seek compliance, not issue citations for people who violate the ordinance."

Faver said he's handled a couple of prosecutions for "flagrant violators," and won the cases in court.

In most cases, "people are just smoking where they shouldn't be," Hodapp said. But it's tougher for deputies to enforce the law when the facility itself is questioned over its "smoking room."

"It's not clear in our law, and it needs to be revisited," Hodapp said. "But if some place wants to build a smoking room, they'd be smart to wait."

"People are trying to go by the ordinance and comply," said Fairbanks.

"People's public health is a lot better today than it was a year ago," said Heltzer.

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