Voters in Oak Bluffs went on a public health rampage this week. Not only did they reinstate the ban on smoking in town bars, but they also cut back on the number of mopeds that may be rented in town and made sure to put a halt to the presence of bicycles, Frisbees and hacky-sack playing on downtown streets.
Town officials ranging from selectmen to the police chief convinced voters at the special town meeting that their backing of such measures would improve the safety and health of both residents and visitors.
There was little argument from the 163 voters who turned out for the meeting in the school cafeteria, except when it came to smoking, debate on which ranged over familiar turf.
It was just over two weeks ago that the board of health lifted the year-old smoking ban by a two-to-one vote and immediately allowed smokers back into the town's three bars that do not serve food. All are clustered on the lower stretch of Circuit avenue.
Health board chairman Joe Alosso stood up to argue that the town's decision to ban smoking in bars was a failed experiment. "The ban sent people to the sidewalks to smoke," he said, reading from a prepared statement. The results, he added, threatened to ruin the family character of downtown.
"The majority of people thought the street was filthy with cigarette butts," he continued. "People felt intimidated to walk through the groups of people smoking. I saw parents with strollers forced into the street."
Mr. Alosso's plea to voters to use common sense and protect families and children from a bar scene on the sidewalks drew a round of loud applause.
Then Tim Dobel, owner of Mocha Mott's coffee shop on Circuit avenue, picked up the same line of thinking. The ban, he said, had simply transplanted the barroom atmosphere out onto the sidewalk.
"I'd much rather see people smoking in the bars," he said, "so my kids can go to Giordano's and the Gameroom."
Back in April at annual town meeting, voters had endorsed a referendum that instructed the board of health to maintain the ban on smoking in bars. It was a voice vote, loud enough to convince moderator David Richardson that voters had sent a clear message.
But on another proposal, voters decided - 105 to 65 - to exempt private clubs from the ban. For the last three weeks, Mr. Alosso has argued that the split over private clubs really showed that voters approved of smoking in bars.
But Tuesday night, voters reaffirmed their April action, raising their yellow cards to tell smokers their welcome mat in bars would soon be gone.
Herbert Combra, the former board of health member who last year recommended letting voters express their opinions on the smoking issue, told the town meeting this week: "Stand your ground, and say ‘No smoking in bars.'"
Bill White, the dissenting health board member who voted against lifting the ban earlier this month, said his job was to protect the public health and to follow the mandate of the citizens of Oak Bluffs.
"Secondhand smoke is a deadly substance," he said. "The clear majority of the people said they did not want smoking in bars. It's not my official right to act unilaterally."
Another woman rose up to say that Oak Bluffs had become a "laughingstock" in the eyes of the state and the nation after its board of health opened bar doors to smokers.
Ken Rusczyk, the selectman who moved quickly to propose the smoking ban as a town bylaw, urged voters to support the article. "Smoking is legal, but this is secondhand smoke," he said. "Think of college students who work [in bars] eight hours a day. They have no choice."
Mr. Rusczyk said yesterday he felt vindicated by Tuesday's vote to reverse the board of health action. "It was embarrassing to have the board of health make such an outrageously bad decision," he said.
It could take as long as three or four months, however, for the new ban to go into effect. The state attorney general must review the bylaw and approve it before the town can put it on the books and begin enforcement.
Meanwhile, Peter Martell, owner of the Lampost and the Rare Duck, plans to keep the ashtrays out and the "Smoking Allowed" signs up at his bar and nightclub.
"We were a little dismayed at the vote," he said yesterday. "The point about smokers in the street was totally ignored. The people who voted don't go downtown and don't go into bars. It was most unfortunate."
But as Mr. Martell gears up for what could be the last summer of smoking in bars, he said his customers will be happy at least in the short term.
Five years ago, boards of health across the Vineyard banned smoking in restaurants, but let bars remain the last bastion for smokers. Last year, both Edgartown and Oak Bluffs extended the ban to bars, creating what tobacco prevention officials called an "even playing field" between the only two Island towns where alcohol is served.
On the issue of mopeds, voters approved all three measures aimed at reducing the number of mopeds for rent, imposing a minimum height requirement for child passengers and clamping down on licensing regulations for dealerships.
Whether the move really makes moped riders any safer is questionable, but selectmen's chairman Todd Rebello argued simply that the action represented a move to whittle away at the fleet of mopeds rented in the town.
In essence, the vote taken Tuesday maintains the status quo for mopeds in Oak Bluffs. Dealers were asked to license only the number of mopeds they had on their lots - currently 388 - not the inflated numbers that had been claimed on their licenses for years. Previously, dealers held licenses that would have allowed them to rent up to 539 mopeds all told.
Oak Bluffs begins the summer season with one fewer moped dealer in town, thanks to a complicated deal selectmen cut this winter with Mark Wallace, a moped kingpin who offered to evict moped dealer Colin Young in exchange for a liquor license and sewer permit for his new restaurant on the harbor.
While Mr. Wallace told selectmen last winter that he had sacrificed income by terminating Mr. Young's lease for Porthole Mopeds on Circuit avenue extension, he is the only moped dealer in town who did not reduce the number of mopeds on his license. He owns Ride On Mopeds on Lake avenue, which is licensed for 120 mopeds.
Currently, five moped dealerships are licensed in town. But selectmen can now license a total of six dealers. It's still unknown whether Mr. Young will try to open his other outlet, Harbor Bike and Moped, which is on the water side of Circuit avenue extension.
The articles dealing with moped regulations passed with little discussion and no opposition. But on the question of bicycles downtown, there was some confusion and concern that banning bikes from the downtown area might be too extreme.
Robert Iadicicco, for one, was shocked to hear that he couldn't walk his bike on Circuit avenue, even if he was just on his way to Reliable Market or the post office. He argued for an amendment that would clarify the bylaw to deal with riding bikes, not just using them, which could include walking alongside a bike.
But police chief Joseph Carter said the amendment would water down a bylaw which is intended to make the congested sidewalks safe for pedestrians. Voters also voted to ban any ballplaying or Frisbee-throwing on downtown streets.
"I like this bylaw, but will the youngsters of the town be instructed where they can do such activities?" asked Marty Nadler.
Chief Carter assured Mr. Nadler that police would enforce the bylaw by informing people of the many parks in town where they can legally play with Frisbees and other so-called "missiles" defined in the bylaw.
In addition to several money transfers approved by voters, the town meeting also took action on matters dealing with a job description for a town administrator.
The meeting featured a number of humorous moments. When the lights inexplicably went out, leaving voters in a dimmed setting, Mr. Richardson informed residents minutes later that the lighting controls were motion sensitive.
"Could people please stand up and wave their arms?" he asked.
But one of the best moments came in a vote to rescind part of an antiquated board of health regulation dealing with the distance that swine should be kept from houses and roadsides.
When the moderator called for a vote, there was an emphatic response of hurrahs. When he asked if there was any opposition, there was just one - a guy in the front row who yelled out, "Oink."