PINE BLUFF -- A council member unhappy with the City Council's Sept. 3 vote that defeated his proposed amendment to the city's smoke-free workplace law said he is taking his case to the people.
Council member Bruce Lockett introduced an ordinance to amend Pine Bluff's smoke-free workplace law to include Saracen Casino Resort, the $350 million resort now under construction in Jefferson County.
The proposal, opposed by Downstream Development Authority, the Quapaw Nation entity that is building the casino, would have included the casino property in the city's workplace smoking ban. The General Assembly, in the 2019 legislative session, exempted casinos from the state's clean indoor air statutes.
At the Sept. 3 City Council meeting, the council members, over Lockett's objections, voted to suspend the rules and place the ordinance on the third reading, which Lockett said had the effect of limiting the debate. The measure failed by a vote of 1-6, with one council member recusing from the vote.
"I don't think an issue with this much gravity should be rushed," Lockett said at the Sept. 3 meeting. "A referendum will be coming, and it will be drawn out to November."
Because of that vote, Lockett said he has begun circulating a petition to put a referendum on the November 2020 general election ballot.
"There were people there who supported my proposal but, because they weren't signed up to speak on that particular night, they didn't get a chance to be heard," Lockett said. "By placing the ordinance on the third reading, the council cut off the debate on it. I was willing to let it ride if everyone had been able to speak over three consecutive meetings, but they voted it down in one night."
Shortly after the meeting adjourned, Lockett drew up a petition to place the issue on the ballot in the November 2020 general election. Originally, Lockett planned to introduce the petition at a town-hall-style meeting at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, organized by the Minority Research Center on Tobacco and Addictions and the Minority Initiative Sub-Recipient Grant Office. But that meeting, scheduled for Sept. 10, was abruptly canceled.
That same afternoon, Lockett assembled a few supporters at RJ's Sports Grill in downtown Pine Bluff, asking for volunteers to circulate the petition and help gather signatures.
Rosie Pettigrew, one of the owners of RJ's -- "I'm the 'R' in RJ," she said -- noted that the issue of smoking among minority groups is personal with her.
"My girlfriends and I all smoked from the time we were in high school," Pettigrew said. "Three of them are dead from lung cancer."
Pettigrew said she stopped smoking in 1984.
"It was the day before Thanksgiving," she said. "Best thing I ever did."
Naomi Summerville of Pine Bluff, a former director of the Jefferson County Tobacco Free Coalition, said she was surprised when she heard that a casino would be locating in Pine Bluff, but she was even more suprised that the City Council voted down Lockett's proposal with limited public input.
"They say they want a level playing field, but this is an unlevel playing field," Summerville said. "People want to patronize a nonsmoking facility."
Although she is not a smoker, Summerville said her father, who was a heavy smoker from the age of 9, passed along a legacy of health problems to his whole family due to secondhand smoke.
"He died at 60 when his heart just blew up," she said. "Forty years later, my mom still has problems from secondhand smoke. He had six kids, and three of us have asthma, and I've got a pacemaker. It's just caused all kinds of problems."
Lockett's petition must receive approximately 2,000 valid signatures from registered voters who live in Pine Bluff by Oct. 3 to make it onto the ballot, according to the Pine Bluff city attorney's office.
Mayor Shirley Washington expressed surprise that Lockett had begun circulating the petition, saying she thought the matter was settled.
"I think the reason most of the council members felt like the issue should have been placed on the third reading is because this is something that should have been discussed early on," Washington said. "So, I think it was the feeling of most of the council that if this was going to be a nonsmoking casino, it should have been decided before, and that this was something that now, they needed to go ahead and make a decision one way or the other."
State Desk on 09/16/2019