EVANSVILLE —The rejection of two temporary injunctions against a city smoking ban set to start Sunday left bar and club owners wondering if they should continue fighting, learn to cope or close.
But for officials at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 1114, one item of recourse was clear.
“Well, the only thing we can do now is make sure the City Council doesn’t get reelected,” said Randy Muston, quartermaster for the West Side VFW post. “Other than that, we aren’t sure what we’re going to do.”
On Friday afternoon, JudgeRobert Pigman denied two injunctions filed by 29 bars and eight private clubs to stop a city smoking ban that takes effect 12 a.m. Sunday.
Vanderburgh County Health Department Director David Gries said his agency shares enforcement of the smoking ban with local law enforcement, but reporting violations is up to the public.
“We’re leaving it in the hands of the clubs and tavern owners to follow the law,” Gries said. “What we’ll rely on is the general public making any calls or complaints, and we’ll follow up on those.”
Those caught violating the ban could be fined $50 for the first offense. Those caught again face a fine of at least $100, according to city code, which states any person or business owner could be cited.
On Feb. 13, Evansville City Council passed the ban, which exempts the gaming floors of Casino Aztar. On March 12 the bars and clubs sued the city and City Council and sought temporary injunctions.
Attorney Charlie Berger, who represents the bars, declined to comment on Pigman’s ruling.
Les Shively, who represents the clubs, said testimony in court Wednesday showed how he viewed the situation differently. Berger and Shively brought 11 witnesses to show the smoking ban was a violation of equal protection rights afforded by the state constitution. The attorneys also argued their clients are similar to Aztar because they also pay taxes.
Pigman’s ruling stated that Aztar is taxed on admission, winnings and makes city lease payments, which makes it a different facility. The ruling also stated that Aztar attracts different clientelle.
City attorney Keith Vonderahe said the ruling reflected many of the points his team made.
“I think the length of Judge Pigman’s judgment shows he didn’t take it lightly and I also think it shows he agreed with the arguments we made,” Vonderahe said.
Bars and clubs included as plantiffs in the lawsuits felt Pigman’s ruling left them in the cold. 711 Tavern Bartender Kim Dennison said Pigman and City Council should have realized there are plenty of nonsmoking bars already available.
“I’ve worked in the bars for 20 years and I choose to work in a bar and I think it should be my right and the bar owner’s right,” Dennison said, adding about 90 percent of her customers smoke.
Members of local military fraternal organizations said they especially felt like the rights they served to protect are being taken away by government. American Legion Post No. 265 Finance Officer Leonard Weiss said City Council should have shown more respect for veterans.
“I don’t think, in my opinion, the City Council has the right to take smoking away from the veterans that go over and fight for our freedom,” Weiss said. “That’s my strongest opinion.”
Weiss and Rick Kennedy, owner of 718 Tavern said both groups would use next week to weigh options. Pigman’s ruling called for a conference with Berger and Shively on Wednesday.
“I don’t think it’s fair,” Kennedy said. “We’re going to see if can be overruled and hopefully it can be.
“I think the judge is wrong.”
Kennedy said he feared the worst for some bar owners. Old Tyme Tavern Owner Lonnie Freeman said his bar likely would close.
“I don’t understand how government can tell a private business that we can’t smoke in a place that I own and is 21 years old only,” Freeman said. “I don’t understand how these do-gooders can put me out of business.”