The Beverly Hills City Council has backed off its tough anti-smoking ordinance by proposing to allow restaurant owners to set up separate smoking sections for up to 50% of their customers if ventilation systems are installed to prevent smoke from entering nonsmoking areas.
The council agreed to consider amending the ordinance after restaurant owners complained that the law was chasing many of their customers across city limits to restaurants where smoking is permitted. Some owners have reportedly refused to comply with the no-smoking law.
Mayor Benjamin Stansbury said at a Tuesday study session that the amendment preserves the original intention of the law. "We see no justification in mixing smokers' air with nonsmokers' air within the same room," he said. "Therefore, we don't care what a restaurant does in terms of providing space for smokers so long as the air is not recirculated for nonsmokers."
Stansbury and Councilwoman Charlotte Spadaro, two members of a committee appointed by the council to negotiate a compromise on the ordinance, plan to discuss the amendment with the city's restaurant owners at a meeting Friday morning in City Hall. When the details of the proposal are worked out, it will be submitted to City Council for final action.
Rudy Cole, a spokesman for the Beverly Hills Restaurant Assn. that represents 60 restaurants in the city, said the amendment "is a beginning." He urged the council to consider adopting the change immediately.
"The concept of the ventilation system is acceptable," he said. "It has to be a ventilation system that is economically feasible."
Walt Bilofsky, a spokesman for Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, said the council's amendment could not be considered a victory for either side. "What it means that in the long run nonsmokers in Beverly Hills will continue to be able to eat in a smoke-free environment," he said.
Under the proposed amendment, owners would be allowed to set aside up to 50% of the seats for a nonsmoking section provided that they install ventilations systems to remove the smoke from the air of nonsmoking customers. City officials said that if the amendment receives final approval, the city will develop standards for restaurants to ventilate the smoke from their establishments. Restaurants will be given 90 days to submit plans and six months to install ventilation systems.
City officials proposed another amendment to exempt all restaurants with 50 seats or less from any provision of the smoking ordinance. But several council members said they are less likely to approve exemptions based on hardship without financial records to support the claim. "We really cannot go forward to make a decision based on hardship without more information," Robert K. Tanenbaum said.
Release of Data Feared
Restaurants have been reluctant to provide the information because they fear it will be made public. "They don't want to see their names listed in the newspapers," Cole said. "Once a restaurant is perceived as losing, it is going to lose more."
Spadaro said that without more information the city had no way of knowing whether the decline is being caused by the smoking ordinance or something else. "I'm not sure it is just Beverly Hills; I think it is across the board," she said.
Councilwoman Donna Ellman disagreed. She voted for the amendment, but said she now believes the ban is a mistake.
"I don't think that it is appropriate for this City Council--in isolation surrounded by Los Angeles and West Hollywood--to make laws that are discriminating against the small businesses who are trying to survive in this community," she said. "We are not big enough; we aren't important enough."
Last month the owners dropped their lawsuit against the city to encourage the city to compromise. The state Supreme Court had rejected an earlier claim that the law was unconstitutional.
The law prohibits smoking in indoor restaurants, but exempts bars, lounges, private banquet rooms and restaurants in hotels. Those who violate the law are subject to a $500 fine.
Since the law took effect April 3, only one citation has been issued out of 13 complaints received by the city.