Council divided on e-cigarette measure

Published 10:11 am Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Austin City Council is one step closer to an electronic cigarette moratorium prohibiting e-cigarette use in public places, but the council appears split on the issue.

Council members voted 4-3 on the issue during their work session Monday night, with Mayor Tom Stiehm supporting the measure as Council Member Judy Enright was absent, which means the council will formally vote on a moratorium during its March 17 public meeting.

Stiehm at first voted against moving the moratorium forward as he thought Enright would vote against the issue, but switched his vote once several council members said Enright would likely support a moratorium.

Email newsletter signup

“I wanted to keep the issue alive so all the council members can vote on it,” Stiehm said.

To pass a moratorium, council members need to unanimously approve the issue during its first reading. If a unanimous vote doesn’t happen, the measure can pass by a majority at a second reading.

It may come down to a majority vote as Council Members Jeremy Carolan, Michael Jordal and Jeff Austin all voted against the issue. Jordal tried to sway the council — after a presentation two weeks ago by county health officials and the American Lung Association — with information from several articles, and said e-cigarettes would likely prove beneficial to residents who wish to quit smoking.

“The facts aren’t all out yet, but I think that it will be determined in the long run that e-cigarettes are much better for people than other cigarettes,” he said. Jordal and Austin also argued for residents’ rights to use e-cigarettes in public without interference.

Stiehm and Council Members Janet Anderson and Steve King disagreed.

“We don’t know all the facts yet,” Anderson said.

E-cigarettes have been on the market for about five years and haven’t undergone thorough testing by the Food and Drug Administration. They are filled with an unknown amount of nicotine and other chemicals, which are heated to produce a vapor which a person inhales through the e-cigarette. While e-cigarettes are technically considered a tobacco product and therefore are illegal for minors to purchase, there’s often little regulation on where or how they can be sold, or the nicotine bottles that come with them. They don’t fall under Minnesota’s Clean Indoor Air Act as there have been relatively few tests to determine what’s in e-cigarette nicotine.

King said the issue seems like a public health concern as tobacco regulations are in place in part to discourage youth from smoking, yet e-cigarettes are marketed with cartoon characters and fun-sounding flavors like bubble gum.

“Again, the social norm of having an impressionable youth see someone smoking an e-cigarette is harmful, to me,” he said.

City Attorney David Hoversten stressed the moratorium would only prohibit e-cigarettes from public places and other locations covered by the Indoor Clean Air Health Act. Residents could still buy and smoke e-cigarettes within their homes.

In other news, the council:

—Decided to push back efforts to find a city administrator. The council voted to spend the next 90 days seeking input from staff on what duties a city administrator should have. Mayor Tom Stiehm said he was in support of further factfinding after speaking to Finance Director Tom Dankert about the city’s operations without former administrator Jim Hurm. Dankert said in the short run, the city can operate without an administrator but the position is needed in the long term.

—Approved an Austin Fire Department request to spend $63,000 in Fire PERA funding set aside for the department to buy 10 portable radios and eight car radios for firefighters. Fire Chief James McCoy told the council during its retreat the department sometimes has its acting commanders use two radios during a fire, one to keep in touch with firefighters and one to speak with dispatch, as the inside of homes usually prevents firefighters from speaking to dispatch.

The new radios would get rid of the issue for commanders on scene.

—Voted to allow Austin Utilities to use December, January and February bills to calculate this summer’s sewer usage averages. The city usually uses sewer usage totals from the first five months of the year as an average for the rest of the year’s bills, but frozen pipes across the city have more residents leaving their water running to prevent similar issues.

Austin Utilities recommended using those three months to bill as the usage rates in November, December and January would accurately reflect sewer usage before the city was plagued by deep freeze issues.

—Voted to work with the Austin Port Authority to fix the legal description on properties the city and port authority owns in downtown Austin. The port authority owns the so-called fire site on the east side of North Main Street between Fourth and Second Streets, yet that property’s title has created an overlap with an adjacent property of between 1 and 2 inches of land. City officials discovered the gap has illegally existed since 1892 and will fix the issue through a court order. Community Development Director Craig Hoium said the issue is more common than people would think and the court order is the common solution to this kind of problem.

—Delayed hearing about the city’s new branding campaign until its March 17 meeting.

—Delayed discussing its goals and priorities for 2014 until March 17.