Smoking ban becomes law as council overrides Elorza’s veto

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — It’s now illegal to smoke a cigarette in a portion of downtown Providence following a vote Thursday night by the City Council.

The council voted 11-2 in favor of the ordinance, overriding a veto from Mayor Jorge Elorza. One council member abstained.

At least 10 votes were needed for the override. The smoking ban received initial approval from the council with a 10-3 vote last month but came up short in the second vote, in which only eight councilors voted in favor.

The measure prohibits the use of all tobacco-related products in areas surrounding Kennedy Plaza and Burnside Park, with the exception of private residences.

Supporters say the ban will improve public health, while detractors such as Elorza contend it’s targeting the homeless and is a waste of resources.

“Everyone deserves access to healthy public spaces,” acting Council President Sabina Matos said in a statement. “There is no safe level of exposure to second-hand smoke. This is a commonsense measure that mitigates second-hand smoke exposure in our most congested public spaces.”

The mayor on Wednesday said he was discouraged to hear of the council’s plan, calling the smoking ban “inhumane and flawed.” He released a statement following Thursday’s vote, saying he’s disappointed in the council’s decision.

“I’m extremely disappointed by the City Council’s decision to pass a bill that transparently criminalizes poverty. The enforcement of this ordinance is not a solution as it does nothing to address the problem at its root. It will place additional strain on our officers, waste resources and time, and will prove to be ineffective as it will only push folks to other locations. I will continue to work with our community partners to advocate for more effective solutions that do not target the homeless and poor.”

There are already “no smoking” signs posted at the transportation hub and the park. Former Mayor Joseph Paolino, who supports the ordinance, said the ban is about fairness.

“You can’t say, ‘you can’t smoke in the park but it’s OK to smoke on the sidewalk across the street from the park,'” he said. “It doesn’t make sense.”

After the council overrode Elorza’s veto Thursday night, Paolino released a statement congratulating the council “for their leadership in working to create a cleaner, more welcoming Kennedy Plaza for all.”

But not all council members were on board. Councilwoman Carmen Castillo voted against overriding the veto, as did Councilman Michael Correia.

Councilwoman Mary Kay Harris abstained, saying she felt torn between public health concerns and worries that the ordinance would unfairly target the homeless population.

Councilman Sam Zurier, who opposed the ban in the council’s second vote on the ordinance, said Thursday night he was again tossing his support behind it. Zurier said his change of heart came after a vision emerged from the Providence Downtown Improvement District to turn Kennedy Plaza and Burnside Park into something akin to New York City’s Bryant Park.

Zurier also introduced an amendment Thursday night that would see the ban expire on October 1, 2018. The amendment is pending before the ordinance committee.

The director of the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project sent a letter to council members Thursday morning urging councilors to not override the mayor’s veto, saying the ordinance will be used as an attempt to displace the poor and homeless from public areas downtown. Homeless advocate Tammi Wheeler attended Thursday’s meeting in hopes of testifying against the ban, but no public testimony was heard. She believes it will unfairly target the homeless community and negatively impact visitors to the city.

Those found to be in violation of the ordinance would be given a warning for the first offense, followed by a $50 fine for each successive offense.