Like paper in fire

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Like paper in fire: Effort to stop smoking ban thwarted

Last weekend to puff away inside your favorite dive

The movement to stop the Minneapolis, Bloomington and Hennepin County smoking bans likely gasped its last breath this afternoon, after Hennepin County District Court Judge John Q. McShane denied a request by six bars and private clubs.

"Basically, we weren't even close," e-mails one prominent bar owner in Minneapolis who is opposed to the ban, ruling out the likelihood of an appeal. "I think we are dead in the water."

It was the culmination of what proved to be a frustrating reality for a growing number of bar, club and restaurant owners: The ban was fait accompli from day one. 

The bar owner notes that McShane had to rule on five points, most notably the contention by the plaintiffs (the bar owners) that the Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act of 1975 doesn't allow for local governments to have more stringent smoking laws than what's on the state books. McShane agreed with a 2000 ruling that said the law does allow for tougher local control. McShane ruled in favor of the the cities and county (the defendants) on another point and remained neutral on three other points. 

The ban goes into effect on Thursday.

It was signed one sunny afternoon way back in July, when Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman, and City Council members Paul Zerby and Gary Schiff held a "media event"/ordinance signing at the Bryant Lake Bowl in south Minneapolis. BLB's owner, Kim Bartmann, had become a poster child for the anti-smoking advocates: a hip, successful entrepreneur who wanted a smoke-free business.

At the time, Bartmann was able to get away with some prime doubletalk: On the one hand, she argued, she could not go smoke-free and compete with other businesses that didn't. On the other, a smoking ban, she was sure, would lead to a bar and restaurant boom for the city. The paradox--oh, let's call it a conflict--was ignored.

(In his ruling today, McShane said he believed the bans would hurt business.)

The trouble was, Bartmann was in the minority among her fellow bar owners. Despite the unified front her presence in all of this conveyed, it was largely a fiction. Many entrepreneurs were lobbying against the ban behind the scenes.

Sensing some resistance, anti-smoking advocates managed to convince city leaders that a smoking ban was really a worker's rights issue. The dangers of second-hand smoke were killing service industry employees. Not everyone bought that argument, however, and in the ensuing months, it was hard to find a bartender or server in town--and the research was exhaustive--who really felt strongly about banning smoking in their workplaces.

More importantly, there had been a task force set up by Rybak and the city to receive input on possible alternatives to an outright ban. "We called it a task farce," said one bar owner last week. "They were never serious about hearing from people who actually owned establishments."

As it happened, the task force had one 90-minute meeting, headed by Rocco Forte, the former chief of the Minneapolis Fire Department who is now the city's public safety czar. In that meeting, several partial bans, like the one eventually passed in Ramsey County, were discussed. By the next meeting, according to several sources on the task force, Forte and others proposed a total ban, and listened to little else in less than an hour.

It's only been in recent weeks that anyone has talked--not for attribution, mind you--about a process they think was cooked. With the exception of Sue Jeffers, the owner of Stub and Herb's in Stadium Village by the U of M, many bar owners have been silent on the issue--partly out of denial, partly out of fear of political payback.

Last weekend, one downtown bar owner noted that the people who really wanted the ban aren't bankable customers anway. "Those people are not going to be bread-and-butter like our regulars have been," he said. "What happened here was the tyranny of a minority." 

Even so, one thing's certain: No amount of griping can turn back the ban now. After this weekend, we'll see you on the sidewalk.

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