The primary mission of government is to protect the “health, safety and welfare” of its constituents, so the good health of DeKalb County’s citizens should be one of the Board of Commissioners’ (BOC) highest priorities. That’s what makes the BOC’s Sept. 13 decision to vote down a proposal to ban smoking in all public places, including parks and all businesses, disheartening.
DeKalb has long been a leader in smoking cessation. The county’s existing ordinance bans smoking in all enclosed workplaces (including most businesses), but it exempts bars and adult entertainment establishments—basically any business that anyone 17 or under cannot enter. The exemption is what the DeKalb County Board of Health, Commissioner Gannon and I sought to change.
The current ordinance was established in 2003, and the state of Georgia followed with its own law patterned on ours in 2005. DeKalb’s previous leadership success makes the Sept. 13 vote all the more disappointing.
Earlier this year, the DeKalb County Board of Health provided the BOC with model legislation extending the county’s current smoking ban to include all public and work places. The proposed ordinance change would also eliminate smoking in certain outdoor areas such as in public parks and near the entrances to buildings. Anyone who has had to run the gauntlet of secondhand smoke just to enter a store or office complex understands how important such a change would be.
Unfortunately, it was not to be. The affected businesses—bars and adult entertainment establishments—claimed that a smoking ban would harm their bottom lines, and these businesses make themselves essential to some elected officials through their charitable work and campaign contributions. The merits of their argument were easily refuted, but in the end it didn’t matter. Their lobbying convinced Commissioners Sutton and May to recommend disapproval in committee, and Commissioners Johnson, Boyer and Watson to support their recommendation. In the end, only Commissioner Gannon and I supported the Board of Health’s proposal.
But I didn’t give up; I proposed an alternative that would delay implementation of the change for two years. That would give businesses time to retool and prepare for the new nonsmoking rules. Unfortunately, that plan was voted down as well. With that, the BOC needed to move on to other business.
I don’t disagree with people who say customers who patronize bars make a conscious choice to enter the place and encounter smoke or smoke themselves. Smoking is a legal activity as well. I understand that.
However, my concern lies for workers who must earn their living in a business where smoking indisputably puts them at risk. Now, some may say that these workers also make a conscious choice—they don’t have to work in a bar if they are concerned about their lungs. But I don’t think that’s really fair. Many people must take jobs wherever they can get them. Must they really sacrifice or endanger their good health just to collect a paycheck? Should you? No.
If you work in an office or a store, the local and state law dictates that your workplace will be a nonsmoking environment. Why should a bartender or server’s workplace be any different? It is patently unfair that workers in certain industries be exposed to secondhand smoke—something proven to be a major health hazard.
Not only was the BOC’s vote against protecting these workers a disappointment, it was economically misguided. Hospitality workers are less likely to have health insurance, so the cost of their inevitable disease is shifted to the taxpayer and the insured. But more importantly, we are backing the wrong industry!
DeKalb’s economic future isn’t in strip clubs and bars, and protecting their profits shouldn’t be one of the BOC’s priorities. DeKalb’s future growth will come from health-related industry and advanced technology. These types of businesses will appreciate a county government that is concerned about public health issues and does something to improve them. It is shortsighted to discount their opinions in favor of a niche entertainment sector.
So, our effort to update our county smoking ordinance was defeated, but the story isn’t over. There are portions of the discussion, such as a ban on smoking in public parks that the BOC may revisit. I hope that time is soon.
Our meeting wasn’t only about smoking. We also positively addressed a significant county staffing issue that I think all our constituents can support.
Some time ago, the BOC, in order to reign in DeKalb’s budget, eliminated all unfilled county positions. This decision was in part a response to a study we commissioned two years ago. We hired a consultant from Georgia State University to audit the county office for operational efficiency, and the final report stated that DeKalb was overstaffed.
While that may be the case, we are not looking to throw people out of work, particularly with the economy in its current state. Still, the county can work smarter and one of the ways to do that is to adjust the workforce—realign staff to focus on strategic areas, that sort of thing.
Another way to cut costs was to eliminate unfilled positions. Doing that wiped several hundred positions off the books, resulting in considerable savings to county taxpayers. However, the commission did retain the option of reviewing certain crucial positions and would bring some of them back if deemed necessary. That’s what we did on September 13.
We approved the re-establishment of 127 sworn police officer positions and will add additional support positions in the future. Public safety is one of the commission’s highest priorities, so we felt this decision was more than worthwhile.
Jeff Rader represents District 2 on the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners.