Mayor Seeks Public Hearing On Smoking Ban

OCEAN CITY—A hot button
issue intensified a bit this week as a local resident who has been spearheading
a campaign to get smoking banned on the beach in Ocean City sent a harsh letter
to Mayor Rick Meehan seeking immediate action.

David Fox, a retired Air
Force health officer and former Anne Arundel County government worker, penned a
letter to Meehan accusing him of “sticking your head in the sand” and
“displaying a lack of leadership and moral fortitude.”

“You claim and advertise
Ocean City as a ‘family resort’. If you continue to allow smoking on the
beach and boardwalk, Ocean City is not a family friendly resort,” read Fox’s
letter. “I don’t want my grandchildren to be exposed to second hand smoke on
the beach and Boardwalk … In addition, the cigarette butts on the beach and
Boardwalk make Ocean City a big dirty ash tray.”

Public Works Director
Hal Adkins said this week that cigarette butts discarded on the Boardwalk are a
much bigger issue than those left on the beach from a cleanup perspective.

“We have the machinery
that is out there cleaning the beaches, and cigarette butts are picked up each
night just like plastics and anything else,” said Adkins, “but the thing that
is almost impossible to clean up is the cigarette butts that get lodged in
between the boards on the Boardwalk.”

Meehan believes that a
public hearing would be better than a referendum question on the October
ballot, as was pitched by Councilwoman Margaret Pillas two weeks ago, as way to
gauge how citizens feel about a potential ban on smoking on Ocean City beaches.

“Historically, this
comes up every few years, but I think this current request is a part of a
growing trend in our society to not only live healthy but also create healthier
environments for the general public,” said Meehan. “In the next decade, I
believe a lot of cities and towns may go this route, and I think we should at
least be as knowledgeable as possible and have a good understanding of how our
residents and visitors feel about this issue.”

Fox, who started an
email campaign several weeks ago and caught the ear of Pillas, stepped into the
forefront of the conversation with the biting letter to Meehan, and he says he
feels that local politicians can’t turn a blind eye to this issue.

“We elect people to make
decisions, and I think we have enough information on the topic for them to make
a decision without putting it on the voting ballot,” said Fox. “If it had to go
that route, I would support it being on the ballot, but I think this has
sparked enough attention and concerns that they should make a decision.”

Meehan said that going
the public hearing route would allow for a much more open discussion about
whether or not to impose a similar ban on smoking on resort beaches like the
ban that Bethany Beach, Del. passed two years ago.

“Instead of letting this
topic just continue to brew and get bigger and bigger, we need to be fair to
everyone and have a real discussion about this in a public forum, so I believe
a public hearing would be the best way to do that,” said Meehan. “I would hope
that after the summer is over, we get one scheduled and let everyone who wants
to be a part of the conversation be in the same room. I’d much rather see a
public hearing than a referendum question.”

Meehan took Fox’s letter
in stride, saying he respects Fox’s passion and his beliefs, but said that it
would be premature to act solely on one man’s strong stance.

“I think bad leadership
would be if we just took Mr. Fox’s opinions and made a change without hearing
from others in our community, which is why a public hearing is where I’d like
to see this go,” said Meehan. “This is a big issue and we need to take our time
and give everyone a chance to speak, not just Mr. Fox.”

Pillas, on the other
hand, says she wants concise knowledge of the public’s vision and desires
toward the council’s next move and believes that putting a question on the
ballot is the right place to start.

“I’ve never campaigned
on this issue, and I’m not really sure what the public wants us to do with
smoking on the beach,” said Pillas. “I have no feeling on this issue, so I
can’t sit up there at that desk and just assume that I know what the public
would like to have happen. They need to tell us, and we need to do what the
majority says.”

Fox says that he’d like
to see the issue taken one step further and have Worcester County join nine
other counties throughout the state that ban smoking outdoors in public areas
such as parks, school facilities and sports complexes.

In September of 2003,
Anne Arundel County banned smoking at more than 300 parks and fields as part of
a “Smoking Stops Here” initiative developed by the Anne Arundel Department of
Health and the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

“The time has come for
the Ocean City elected officials to stand up and be counted,” said Fox in his
letter. “Vote on this issue now so there is time to post appropriate signs and
educate the public that the OC beach and Boardwalk are smoke free for 2011.”

Indoor smoking bans have
been passed all over the country, including here in Maryland via the Clean Air
Act of 2007. Prior to going into effect on Feb. 1, 2008, local bars and
restaurants were publicly concerned that they would lose business because of
the ban.

Fox says that many
reasons saw the opposite effect, and he thinks the outdoor smoking ban would be
no different.

“Everyone was scared in
the restaurant business that banning smoking would hurt business, but if you
talk to a lot of restaurant folks, they’ll tell you that it actually increased
their business,” said Fox. “I think the same thing could happen if they banned
smoking on the beach.”

Fox also quipped that he
would consider running against Meehan in the upcoming election if he felt the
proper steps weren’t taken on this issue.

“I know I don’t have my
wife’s support yet,” said Fox about the thought of running for mayor, “but I’m
that serious about getting smoking off Ocean City’s beaches.”