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Tobacco ban draws fire

A resolution ordering that St. Croix County buildings, grounds and vehicles be tobacco-free sailed through official channels this fall, but implementing the policy won't be as easy.

The Finance and Personnel Committee voted last Thursday to amend the employee handbook to include the ban. The amendment says employees using tobacco products on county property "will be subject to the disciplinary procedures defined in this handbook."

Still, said Administrative Coordinator Chuck Whiting, supervisors will have to figure out how to work with the ban. He said in his talks with union leaders, he has told them the ban is what it is but the county will be reasonable in enforcing it.

Whiting predicted the new policy, which goes into effect Jan. 1, will draw grievances.

"It's going to create some really hard feelings and seems a little short sighted," Katie Thurmes, a legal secretary in the district attorney's office, told committee members. "I see a lot of chaos can ensue from this."

Thurmes, who has been a smoker for 33 years, questioned if the County Board can change a workplace rule without going through the union bargaining process. She also predicted people will come to the Government Center already smoking and won't stop.

Thurmes suggested reconsidering the ban and taking time to talk about it.

The resolution was adopted by the Health and Human Services Board on a 7-2 vote Sept. 16. A month later the County Board adopted the policy on a 22-5 vote.

Smoking has been banned inside county government buildings and passenger vehicles for 17 years. The resolution adopted in October goes farther by banning the use of tobacco products on the grounds of county buildings, at the fairgrounds, in county parks and in all county-owned vehicles and equipment regardless of location.

Once the ban goes into effect, workers can smoke on their breaks, but only if they leave county property and most breaks are only 15 minutes long, said Human Resources Administrator Tammy Funk. Employees can't go to their cars and smoke because the cars are parked on county land.

Also, said Funk, Nursing Home employees aren't permitted to leave the property during breaks.

She said the policy doesn't force people to give up tobacco.

Instead, said Funk, the policy says, "If you don't want to quit, you don't have to, but this is what the situation is going to be."

She said people who don't come to county offices often won't know the policy so efforts must be made to inform them, but employees who come in every day will know tobacco is banned.

Union representatives provided an arbitrator's decision involving a smoking ban at a state prison, but Corporation Counsel Greg Timmerman said that situation may be different enough that it doesn't apply here.

Supervisor Buck Malick wondered if the ban could be enforced for the public and non-union employees but not all union employees.

It's not advisable to say some people can smoke because they have contract rights and others can't because they don't, replied Timmerman.

"We'd better be consistent about what we're doing," agreed Finance Committee Chairman Daryl Standafer. "If somebody wants to grieve it, let them grieve it."