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Posted on Tue. Jul. 22, 2014 - 12:01 am EDT

COLUMN

Bar's smoke-free decision is a victory for principle, not more government meddling

Rack & Helen's responding to customers, not coercion

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To the chief architect of Fort Wayne's 2007 smoking ban, a New Haven bar and grill's decision to go tobacco-free Aug. 1 despite spending $70,000 on a fancy ventilation system just a few years ago is vindication.

But to the owners of Rack & Helen's, City Councilman John Crawford, R-at large, still doesn't comprehend why they were determined to allow smoking in the first place – and why they are ending it now.

“My battle always was, 'Let me make my own decision,'” said Pat Anderson, who said he and his family decided to snuff out tobacco after hearing from numerous would-be customers who refused to visit the restaurant despite the filters that were supposed to keep the air clean, but apparently didn't.

“This is exactly what we proposed from the beginning: Freedom of choice. You work so hard to get everything right (as a business owner), and it can be difficult. But smoking was the No. 1 complaint, and we could do this,” agreed Anderson's son, Wes.

To people who care only about outcomes, not principles, the change will smack of hypocrisy. After all, it was just two years ago that the elder Anderson said a proposed new statewide anti-smoking law was “driving (him) nuts . . . I'm the one who made the investment, and what they want us to do now is the same thing they did to the Fort Wayne bar owners.”

Many Fort Wayne bar owners said they were hurt or even put out of business by the city's law, which does not apply to New Haven because the Allen County Commissioners gave cities and towns the authority to craft their own regulations.

After Fort Wayne's law took effect, the Andersons spent $1.5 million to expand and modernize their business, and initially reported a 10 percent increase in business, much of it presumably from Fort Wayne. But as that increase tapered off, and the Andersons heard from more and more people who said they wouldn't go to Rack's so long as smoking was allowed, the same market principles that caused them to buy the filtration system will cause them to unplug it in less than two weeks.

“It was a hard decision, with a lot of discussion, and I'm still having sleepless nights over it. We'll lose some business (at least at first), and we know that,” Pat Anderson said. “But it's all about economics."

Crawford, however, still doesn't see it that way.

“If Rack & Helen's customers are asking for a smoke-free bar, it might be time for the county to re-evaluate its ordinance,” he said. “Things are changing.”

But isn't that precisely the point? If consumers really are increasingly demanding smoke-free restaurants and even bars, the outcome Crawford wants will largely be achieved – without the heavy hand of government dooming the few exceptions to extinction. As the Andersons believe, and I have written on more than one occasion, such choices should be left to the marketplace. The ultimate decisions matters far less than the process by which it is made.

“Crawford will never learn,” Pat Anderson said.

But the owners of Rack & Helen's have, which is why they will do something Aug. 1 that seemed unthinkable not too long ago. Wes Anderson hopes the change will eventually result in more business, and early reaction seems positive.

After announcing the decision in Facebook last week, he said, the bar has received about 1,200 “likes” and 240 comments – only five of them negative.

Far from justifying even more government intrusion into “free” enterprise, the imminent change at Rack's – and a similar recent decision at the Trion Tavern down the street – is an eloquent argument for the wisdom and integrity of the marketplace.

But Wes Anderson is realistic enough to know that, one way or another, what will happen in New Haven on Aug. 1 was probably inevitable. “How long can you hold the state off?” he asked.

That's because too many people simply want what they want – and don't particularly care how they get it, even when they're winning.

Bargaining deja vu?

It seems likely City Council Republicans will resort to a bureaucratic trick used two months ago by a Democratic colleague in order to preserve their chance to override Mayor Tom Henry's veto of the "right to work:" legislation passed earlier this month.

Six votes are needed to override a veto -- the same number of Republicans on the nine-member council. But with Mitch Harper expected to be absent Tuesday, several council members tell me they will ask for a motion to reconsider the right to work bill vetoed by Henry last week, which would allow city police and fire employees to choose whether to join a union. That motion would require only five votes, delaying an override vote for two weeks -- when, presumably, all six GOP members would be present.

John Shoaff, D-at large, in May used the same procedure to delay passage of a bill eliminating collective bargaining for non-public safety employees. This delay would give council time to do something it should have done before -- an omission Henry highlighted when vetoing the bill: discuss the issue with the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, as it did with the firefighters' union prior to the vote.

kleininger@news-sentinel.com


This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.


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