Providence may repeal downtown smoking ban

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza is supporting an attempt to repeal a smoking ban in part of downtown that was enacted last year, but former Mayor Joseph Paolino is vowing to lobby the City Council to keep the ordinance in place.

The effort to end the smoking ban is being led by Democratic City Councilman Sam Zurier, who maintains that he only voted to support it because he was assured that the ordinance would be “temporary rather than permanent.”

“I opposed a permanent ban because I believed the ordinance was targeting homeless people unfairly, but I thought a temporary ban could establish a culture in the Kennedy Plaza area that could address the concerns of local business owners,” Zurier told Eyewitness News. “The business community agreed to this compromise.” 

Elorza, a Democrat running for re-election, initially vetoed the ban, calling it a “bad policy that will prove difficult to enforce.” The City Council voted to override the mayor’s veto, and the ordinance took effect in June 2017. A spokesperson confirmed the mayor would support repealing the ban.

The ordinance prohibits the use of tobacco products on the streets that surround Kennedy Plaza and Burnside Park – where smoking is already banned – including Fulton Street, Dorrance Street, Francis Street, Exchange Terrace, Exchange Street and Memorial Boulevard. It also includes a small part of Westminster Street, near the Superman Building.

The first violation of the ordinance comes with a warning and all subsequent violations carry a $50 fine.

An Eyewitness News review of violation records since the ban took effect shows 212 fines have been issued, totaling $10,516. The city has recovered $1,750, while Municipal Court judges have agreed to reduce $3,275 in fines. That means the city is still owed $5,590.

Paolino, the former councilman and mayor who now owns millions of dollars’ worth of real estate downtown, was the leading advocate for the City Council to approve the smoking ban. At the time, he argued the ordinance would benefit the health of the public.

Paolino is accusing Elorza and Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare of ordering police officers to not fine potential violators, a claim Pare called “completely inaccurate.” Records show at least one fine has been issued in all but three months since the ban took effect. There were 12 fines issued in September, but none have been issued in October.

“Kennedy Plaza has gotten worse over the last six months,” Paolino said. “I’m getting a record amount of complaints from my tenants.”

Ward 5 Councilwoman Jo-Ann Ryan, a member of the Ordinance Committee, said the committee is planning to seek more input from the community on the smoking ban before making a decision on whether to repeal it.

Zurier, who represents Ward 2 but did not seek re-election this year, said he’s hoping the business community will also follow through on a commitment to invest in Kennedy Plaza. He provided a letter from Paolino discussing the merits of public-private partnership that would be similar to the one New York City for Bryant Part.

“As I work on holding the business community to the agreement it reached last year on the sunset, I also plan to find out if they are keeping their word on developing a private/public partnership to improve Kennedy Plaza as a park,” Zurier said.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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