Officials push for smoking ban in North Jersey's public parks (The Record)

Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Englewood, spoke with county and municipal officials about the effort to prohibit outdoor smoking at all public beaches and parks in the state. Huttle has been working with Global Advisors on Smoke-free Policy, or GASP, to encourage municipalities to approve the ban to help keep parks clean and healthy.

“We have the momentum. It’s on our side. People understand that it’s a good public health policy,” Huttle said.

The Assembly in March passed Huttle’s bill to ban smoking in all state, county and local parks and recreational areas, including beaches. When Huttle was a Bergen County freeholder about 11 years ago, she pushed for a ban on smoking in public parks and playgrounds after noticing the effects of secondhand smoke on her daughters.

“As a mother, I would take my girls to the park and they would come down the slides and they would be sliding into cigarette butts,” Huttle said.

A Senate version of Huttle’s bill has yet to be voted on. Huttle said she hopes Friday’s event builds support for the measure and that Governor Christie signs it by June.

“Summer is approaching, and I would hope that we can encourage people to support the goal that when we go to Jersey beaches this summer it will be smoke-free,” Huttle said.

Garfield approved a no-smoking ordinance about 1½ years ago because of GASP’s work and message, said the city’s mayor, Joseph Delaney. While no ordinance is ever going to be 100 percent enforceable, Delaney said, he has noticed improvements in Garfield’s five municipal and two county parks, and officers have been issuing summonses to those who light up there.

The effect of the ordinance is particularly noticeable at large sporting events, he said.

“There’s no longer parents sitting on the sidelines smoking,” Delaney said.

Fort Lee expects to adopt its own park ordinance at the next Borough Council meeting in two weeks, Mayor Mark Sokolich said.

He described the ordinance as a “win-win” that creates a healthier and cleaner environment. It also could stem complaints about cigarette litter, he said.

“We don’t have to go through magazines to find pretty and nice-looking ashtrays for our parks because we don’t need them anymore — and they don’t have a lot of them,” Sokolich said.

Mayor a smoker

Sokolich, a longtime smoker, said he is “ashamed” of his habit and is working to change it. He said that in view of the health risks, people should not be allowed to smoke around those who want to stay away from it.

“It give us less opportunity to do it,” Sokolich said.

New Jersey prohibited public smoking indoors in 2006, and Huttle’s measure would extend that ban. Penalties include fines of $250 for the first offense, $500 for the second and $1,000 for each additional offense.

But there could be a gray area related to the penalties that may need to be addressed.

Under a state criminal statute, towns that ban smoking in public areas must charge violators with a disorderly persons offense — a charge that can stay on their record for several years before being expunged — as well as fines. That criminal statute states that it supersedes other statutes.

While some towns are doing just that, others are only applying the civil fines set forth by the New Jersey Smoke-Free Air Act — a practice Fair Lawn’s Borough Attorney Ronald Mondello says is wrong. Mondello is working with state Sen. Robert Gordon, a Democrat, to amend the criminal statute to allow municipalities to impose only civil fines if they wish.

“Most of these towns are passing ordinances and they’re imposing penalties not in line with the state statute,” Mondello said.

Fair Lawn officials have been interested in adopting the smoking ban, but do not want to be required to attach what they consider a stringent punishment.

“We did not want anybody that got caught saddled with this on their record,” Mondello said.

Instead, Fair Lawn has opted to introduce at its next meeting a ban against any type of incendiary devices – like lighters, fireworks or cigarettes – at public parks. And instead of a criminal penalty, the borough decided to impose a fine of up to $2,000, up to 90 days in jail, up to 90 days of community service or a combination of those penalties. Mondello said he thinks the most likely sentence would be a $100 fine.

“It accomplishes the same thing,” Mondello said.

Penalties vary

Andrea Katz, Huttle’s chief of staff, said in an email that “there is potential overlap between the statutes that address smoking in public areas.” Huttle’s office plans to look into the effect the possible conflict could have on the legislation and decide if changes are needed.

But Karen Blumenfeld, executive director of GASP, said New Jersey municipalities do not have to adopt criminal penalties — unless they want to. They are permitted to adopt the ban for their towns and impose whatever penalties they would like. Huttle’s legislation — essentially an extension of the New Jersey Smoke-Free Air Act of 2006 — falls under the state’s civil code, not its criminal code, she said.

“Communities have a choice as to what penalties they assess,” said Blumenfeld, adding that most of the more than 230 communities that adopted the ban locally do not impose criminal penalties.

Pompton Lakes banned smoking in parks in February. Offenders are charged with a petty disorderly persons offense. But the borough’s attorney, Joseph Ragno, also said that municipalities are free to assign whatever penalties they see fit.

“They can make a lesser penalty, they can leave it up to the court. There’s many different things that you can do in a muncipality. The only thing you can’t do is exceed those [penalties] permitted by state statute,” Ragno said.

Garfield’s ban imposes increasing fines. But if the mayor had his way, he would impose even tougher penalties — his mother died of smoking-related cancer.

“If we help one person, we will help a million,” Delaney said.
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