The Public Service Committee of the commission voted 3-0 on Monday to have City Administrator Fred Russell work with the Richmond County Board of Health, which is backing a push for a stronger smoking ban, on drafting a proposed ordinance.
The health board had provided commission members with a model ordinance that has been used to draft stronger local bans across the country, including in Columbia County, Board of Health attorney Harry Revell said. Ordinances based on that model policy have fared well in court challenges, said Augusta general counsel Andrew MacKenzie.
"With ordinances that are substantially similar to the model ordinance, the courts have been very receptive in upholding these kinds of regulations as being constitutional, within the realm of the local government authority to protect the public safety and the welfare of the citizens," MacKenzie said.
Commissioner Jerry Brigham, who also sits on the Board of Health, asked Russell to begin scheduling public hearings in hope of getting public input and perhaps bringing the ordinance back to the commission in its September meetings. Some commissioners sounded as though they were ready to vote for a tougher ordinance now.
"Many businesses are not going to like it at first," said Commissioner Bill Lockett, whose son is a tobacco prevention researcher. "But sometimes we have to be more concerned with the citizens and their health and well-being."
Commissioner J.R. Hatney said he quit smoking in the 1960s.
"I don't see what the big argument is, really," Hatney said. "I'm serious about that."
The city is covered by a state law that bans smoking in most public places but allows it in bars and restaurants that do not serve anyone younger than 18.
The model ordinance sets a ban on smoking in public places, including all county-owned property and vehicles, playgrounds and even outdoor workplaces such as construction sites.
"It's a public health issue, and that's what public health does," said Sadie Stockton, the chronic disease prevention/health promotion program coordinator for the East Central Health District. "We protect the safety and the health of everybody."
After Monday's meeting, Health District Director Ketty Gonzalez, who is also the health commissioner for Richmond County, said she was encouraged by comments from commissioners.
"I think that they saw the numbers and they understand the need," Gonzalez said. "That's a positive move. I hope that the community sees it that way. That's possibly the challenge, trying to tell people we're not trying to control your life. We just want to make sure that we have a safe Richmond County."