(Opinion column) Kim Holloway isn’t a popular woman in many quarters of Casper these days. She’s a pariah to many smokers who want to be free to light up in any bar in the city, as well as bar owners who rely on those customers.

She also doesn’t have many friends left on the Casper city council, which she has almost single-handedly embroiled in a controversy over the city’s smoking ban. But far from being vilified, Holloway deserves praise for standing up for everyone’s right to vote.

The issue is no longer simply about smoking. What’s at stake is the public’s ability to decide an issue that affects an entire community. Wyoming needs to fight for voters’ rights, and that’s what Holloway is doing. It’s particularly important now, as conservative Republicans in many states are trying to pass horrendous voter ID laws to suppress vote totals so it gives them a better chance to win elections.

Holloway sued the city in a case that took nearly two years to resolve, but Casper residents may still not get to vote on the city’s on-again, off-again smoking ban any time soon. It wouldn’t be for a lack of trying. She’s gone above and beyond what anyone else was willing to do for a vital cause.

Ban on, ban off

Holloway used to serve on the council, and voted for restrictions on indoor smoking in public places in 2012. The vote was 7-2, and while the ordinance seemed to have broad support, that notion quickly disappeared as opponents became more vocal.

In the fall of 2012 Holloway gave up her seat on the council to run for the state senate, but lost that election. Meanwhile, opponents of the smoking ban supported city council candidates who vowed to overturn the council’s action, and managed to elect enough of them to change the city ordinance.

Bowing to pressure from smokers, plus bar owners who argued they should have the right to decide their own smoking policies, the council in 2013 voted 5-4 to amend and lift the ordinance. Some Casper establishments switched back to smoking because they’d lost customers to bars outside the city limits. However, the vast majority of liquor establishments in Casper decided to remain smoke-free.

The city council’s actions were legitimate, but when enough residents are dissatisfied with the council or its action — enough to launch a petition drive for a vote to possibly correct it — that effort ought to get a fair shot. Smoking ban supporters felt they still had a shot, and Holloway stepped up to lead the effort.

“Keep Casper Smoke Free” needed 2,465 signatures of registered voters to put the issue on the ballot, and it turned in more than 3,000 to the city clerk’s office just in case some would be invalidated. But the clerk determined it fell 67 signatures short of meeting the city’s election requirement.

Puzzled that so many signatures had been rejected, the former city councilwoman asked for a list of the ones City Clerk V.H. McDonald and his staff threw out. She quickly found 95 signers who were deemed unqualified, and asked why these registered voters weren’t counted.

McDonald explained signatures that were rejected didn’t have the exact names that appeared on voter rolls, or had different addresses since they’d registered. Holloway checked the voter regulations and found there were no city requirements anywhere in Wyoming for either exact names or to have the same addresses on petitions.

The clerk turned down the group’s request to review the signatures and check their validity, leaving Keep Casper Smoke Free only two options: accept the negative outcome or go to court.

Holloway sued and eventually won when the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled in June — nearly two years after the petition drive failed — that the city clerk did not have a valid reason for his action. The court gave Holloway a deadline to track down the registered voters whose qualifications were in question, to see if they still supported the petition.

There were plenty of obstacles in the way of finding people who may have moved several times in the past two years, but Holloway and two others managed to affirm the 67 signatures they needed. The high court ordered the city to either reinstate the original ban or put the issue before the voters.

No vote on smoking since 2000

To understand this issue, it’s necessary to go all the way back to 2000, when the Casper City Council adopted an ordinance that banned smoking in bars and restaurants. Before it was enacted, though, opponents garnered enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot. It was a close election but the public spoke, and the ban was overturned.

The issue was raised periodically by anti-smoking advocates over the next dozen years, as city council members came and went. Supporters of the smoking ban convinced the city council to pass their recommended ordinance in the summer of 2012. Just six months after the ban became effective, the council decided to exempt bars, private clubs and hospital facilities.

The public last voted on the issue 15 years ago, and Keep Casper Smoke Free’s petition would have determined in 2013 if voters had changed their minds since 2000. The state’s highest court has corrected the city clerk’s faulty decision not to approve the petition, so a new vote could be held. What’s holding up an election?

For one thing, money. Several members of the council contend the city should not spend an estimated $30,000 on a special election to see if the smoking ban should stay or go. Others, including Mayor Charlie Powell, argue that the sum is paltry if an election can decide the issue once and for all and end the public’s confusion about the ordinance.

So what’s next in the city’s seemingly endless smoking saga? Last week the current council voted on first reading to throw out both the 2012 smoking ban AND the 2013 amendment, which would leave Casper back to square one without a smoking ban on the books. But the proposal has to pass three readings to take effect (the second one will be at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 22).

“This is a perfect example of why people say, ‘You can’t fight City Hall,'” said Mary Ann Budenske, Holloway’s attorney. “When you win you lose. It’s almost as if the council is saying, ‘Think you are smart, Jersey girl? We’ll show you!'”

Holloway has launched a petition on Change.org that asks the council to repeal the amendments and leave the original ban intact. It would ban smoking in all bars, health care facilities and businesses with public access.

“The city fought us on this for two years,” Holloway said. “People are burned out, frustrated and infuriated that our current city council would take us backwards. We cannot give up.”

If the council repeals the ban, Holloway is prepared to start a new petition drive for a special election. This time she would need only 1,850 signatures, 615 less than the ballot hurdle in 2013.

“I am amazed at how adamant a handful of business owners can be about their ‘property rights’ — sometimes they say their ‘constitutional rights’ — in the face of the overwhelming evidence that cigarette smoke is bad for people and that secondhand smoke is worse for the non-smoker,” Budenske said. “I am amazed that these same individualists don’t care at all about the people that have to be around them when they smoke.”

Leaving the original ban in place for now and scheduling an election soon makes sense. If the vote is strong either way, it’s much less likely the results would be challenged any time soon. The council should give both sides enough time to campaign and make their final arguments, then put it in the hands of the voters, where it belongs.

The controversy in Casper has now gone far beyond the single issue of smoking in public places. Voting is one of our most precious rights, and for generations many people have sacrificed a lot so we can exercise it. In our community and state Holloway is the latest one to take up the banner, and no matter what position one may take on smoking, we should all be grateful she refused to give up. Registered voters who sign a petition are entitled to have their voices heard, and not be arbitrarily rejected by any official.

— Columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. WyoFile welcomes guest columns and op-ed pieces from all points of view. If you’d like to write a guest column for WyoFile, please contact WyoFile editor-in-chief Dustin Bleizeffer at dustin@wyofile.com.

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Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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