The smoking ban debate is smoldering in South Bend, once again.
A smoke-free ordinance was up for discussion at Monday night’s common council meeting.
After hours of discussion, the council voted 5-3 to table a clean air bill for 60 days.
Several South Bend bar owners took to the podium to voice their concerns. They cited an uneven playing field for bars within city limits because bars in St. Joseph County or neighboring Mishawaka would be able to allow smoking.
The statewide smoking ban does not currently apply to bars or clubs.
Don Ruszkowski was at Monday night’s meeting and shared his worries with council members. He is the finance manager at the American Legion Post 357.
“Our group is going to work very hard for our rights and our veterans’ rights,” Ruszkowski said. “They’re taking away our freedom of choice.”
He said the club got a taste of smoke-free air during a recent renovation.
“The week before the renovation we make around $6000,” Ruszkowski said. “The week of renovation we had no smoking and made barely over $3000. We lost 50 percent of our business because we went to no smoking in that one week.”
While Post 357 is in South Bend, the post across the street is in the county.
“Our members can drop out of our club and join their club,” he said. “Within in a year, we’ll be closed.”
Council member Gavin Ferlic, who authored the bill, said that is not the full picture.
“You find that over time, a number of people start going into those bars that wouldn’t have gone in before because now there’s a clean air environment,” Ferlic said. “Also, people stay longer and they are purchasing more.”
People on both sides of the debate packed into the council chambers Monday night.
“This is not a money issue… this is a health issue,” one woman said.
“Our customers that we depend on could cross city lines to go to a smoking establishment there,” said Gary Weese from Jeannie’s Tavern.
Several council members opposed to the proposal asked for more discussion with the city of Mishawaka and St. Joseph County before taking action.
"I don't want to rush to judgement," said Council President Oliver Davis. "Something of this magnitude needs more time."
Davis says Mishawaka and St. Joseph County need to give their input on the proposal and perhaps take the issue up, as well.
Matt Mammolenti, Mishawaka Common Council president, was at Monday night’s meeting.
“I got up this morning and reached out to Mishawaka bar owners,” Mammolenti said. “I’d like to take it a step further and speak to employees at some of these smoking establishments to hear their concerns.”
Mammolenti said it is still too early to determine where Mishawaka stands on the smoking ban issue.
St. Joseph County Council president Rafael Morton tells Newscenter 16 he empathizes with the worried bar owners. He is willing to meet with officials from South Bend and Mishawaka to discuss smoking restrictions.
No meeting has been scheduled yet.