smoking photo

A smoker sits outside the Cinema Tavern in downtown Villa Rica. The owner of the establishment argues that enforcement of an anti-smoking law will add to the economic hardships his business has faced since the pandemic began.

Villa Rica council members will vote on changing the city’s anti-smoking ordinance when they meet in a special session on Aug. 25.

The ordinance, which appears to have been placed on the books in a peculiar accident, has been raising a cloud of contention since June, when Mayor Gil McDougal ordered that it be enforced. Business owners who cater to smoking-age patrons contend that the rule will cost them business at a time when the pandemic has already hurt their livelihoods.

During their work session last week, and during their regular council meeting on Tuesday, council members heard from numerous people who either wanted the ordinance — which virtually bans all outdoor smoking in the city — to be amended or kept as is.

The ordinance, known as the “City of Villa Rica Smoke-Free Air Ordinance,” was first considered by City Council in 2012 in response to a similarly named state law enacted in 2005. The ordinance is tougher than the state law, however, in terms of its rules on restaurants, vaping and smoking in service queues.

The state law allows restaurants to allow smoking in restaurants if they restrict their patrons to those who are over the age of 18. Villa Rica’s ordinance, however, only allows a restaurant owner to permit smoking if they have an outdoor smoking section — which they can only do if their outdoor service area is half the size of their indoor service area.

But the ordinance also allows the city to control e-cigarettes, or vaping, and bans people from smoking while standing in line, two provisions that most council members appear to overwhelmingly favor.

When the ordinance was first considered in 2012, the council never formally adopted it. Yet when the council voted in 2016 to approve the engrossment of its Code of Ordinances into the Municode, the smoking ordinance was somehow among those that were adopted.

For that reason, city officials argue that the ordinance is in effect and can be enforced.

McDougal, a former city council member, was not serving on the council when the ordinance was first proposed. But in May, he received a complaint from a citizen about people smoking outdoors while waiting in line to enter a store. The citizen asked the mayor if anything could be done about it.

That’s when McDougal learned about the 2012 ordinance and issued an order requiring that it be enforced.

But McDougal’s order received immediate pushback from one business owner, Russ Phillips of the Cinema Tavern Reel Sports Bar & Grill on Montgomery Street. The business restricts its patrons to those over the age of 21, three years older than the age-18 exemption allowed in the state law.

In a letter to the council in June, Phillips said his establishment had always adhered to the state law and argued that the Villa Rica ordinance would cost him business. He also outlined several economic impacts the business has sustained due to the pandemic.

The matter was discussed during last week’s council work session and was added to the agenda for Tuesday’s monthly council meeting.

The council members faced three options: amending the 2012 ordinance, repealing it, or to simply formalize the current ordinance with the council vote it never received.

During a lengthy debate Tuesday, it seemed clear that the council members favored amending the ordinance rather than scrapping or formalizing the current law. In the end, the council voted to table the matter until Aug. 25, when the council has already scheduled a special called meeting.

In the meantime, City Attorney David Mecklin has agreed to draft an amended ordinance that would keep the vaping and smoking in line restrictions but permit restaurants and private clubs to allow smoking If they restrict their patrons to those over the age of 21.