Austin City Council Debates Festival Smoking Exemption Policy

November 4, 2015

The Austin City Council will consider abolishing its policy of giving smoking ban waivers to festivals that use city parks after debate among members over Fun Fun Fun Fest’s waiver application at Thursday’s special meeting.

The city ordinance in question was a law the Health and Human Services Department wrote in 2005 banning smoking in public spaces such as enclosed areas and parks. Six years later, in December 2011, the city council adopted an amendment that allowed events held in the parks, such as festivals, to apply for a temporary exemption to set up designated smoking areas on park land. Since then, fewer and fewer festivals have requested these exemptions over the years. In 2013, four festivals requested the exemptions; last year, only Fun Fun Fun Fest and SXSW asked for them.

Fun Fun Fun Fest’s application is the first request the new city council has seen since it is the only festival to apply in 2015. This year, the festival reduced its request for designated smoking areas from three to five.

“That was our hope, that it would just slowly wean off and we wouldn’t have to go back and address it,” said Sara Hensley, director of Parks and Recreation, at the council meeting.

One reason why Fun Fun Fun Fest is the only festival still asking for the exemption is because the it does not have areas like ACL does, like closed-off streets and sidewalks, where festival-goers can legally smoke, according to Jennifer Sinski, public relations for Fun Fun Fun Fest.

The lack of designated smoking areas doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no smoking at a festival, whether it’s in closed-off streets or illegally in the park.

Council member Sabino “Pio” Renteria said that “smokers have to have their cigarettes.”

“I noticed even at ACL that they were smoking in the park and taking a chance of getting a ticket,” Renteria said. “I believe that if we provide them a safe location, then we won’t have that problem where people are just illegally hiding behind a corner smoking a cigarette.”

Council member Don Zimmerman also didn’t want city law to get involved with festival-goers’ smoking habits and said he is “generally in favor of these kinds of exemptions” because city ordinances can’t solve the problem of public smoking.

Despite being divided on the issue of the exemption policy in general, the whole council voted in favor of Fun Fun Fun Fest’s waiver, with the exception of council member Sheri Gallo.

“I think it’s a little uncomfortable for me to grant permission to smoke to a commercial entity using our park for a function,” Gallo said. “My issue with this is that we already have a policy in place that says no smoking in our parks, and this is granting an exception to that.”

After the debate among members at the city council, the future of the smoking exemption policy became uncertain. At the meeting, Mayor Steve Adler said a city council meeting is not the place for a policy discussion about the exemptions and wanted to move the issue to a board or commission.

Cara Fischer, event coordinator for the Parks and Recreation Special Events Office, said that it is likely the new council will revisit the exemption policy.

“It is difficult to say whether or not the council members will vote to get rid of the smoking exemption, as we had an equal number of members speak for and against the policy,” she said.

If the discussion is sent to a board or commission, it will probably not be reviewed until sometime next year, according to Fischer.

There are both positives and negatives to the exemption, according to Fischer, and the Parks and Recreation department is about as divided as the city council is on this issue.

“Some see it as the smoking ordinance just needs to be applied as a whole without exemptions,” she said, “and there are others who feel that, without it, you’re going to have it (smoking) anyways, and at least this way it’s being contained.”

Fischer said that one of the main problems with the ordinance right now is that it lacks enforcement. The festival is only required to clean up the park after use, and not enforce the smoking ban outside of the designated smoking areas.

“Without any enforcement, I don’t see that being the sole answer to this question of smoking in parks,” she said. “Maybe that’s something that the boards and commissions need to review. If you don’t have someone on the festival side, or if they don’t hire someone to actually go around and enforce this rule, then it’s not the right answer.”

This article was written for J311F: Reporting Words during the fall of 2015.
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