On 3-1 vote, county commissioners direct staff to draft ordinance prohibiting cigarette smoking on county-owned beaches and in all county parks

Commissioner Moran cites concerns about government imposing restrictions on personal rights

After putting a halt to the discussion last year, only to have newly elected County Commissioner Mark Smith revive it in February, the majority of the county board members this week agreed to proceed with plans for a new ban on cigarette smoking on county-owned public beaches and within all county parks.

The county put a similar prohibition in place in 2007. Chapter 90 of the County Code of Ordinances also prohibited smoking in recreational areas where youth activities took place, except in designated areas. Then, a 12th Judicial Circuit Court judge ruled in December 2012 that all authority to impose such a ban rested with the state.

On a 3-1 vote on April 25, the commissioners directed staff to draft an amended ordinance to implement the new regulations. Commissioner Michael Moran opposed the motion that Commissioner Smith made.

During about 20 minutes of discussion, Moran argued that the board members should be wary of “trying to control people’s behavior.” Instead, he suggested that the commissioners direct staff to look into stiffer measures to reduce litter from cigarettes.

At one point, Moran told his colleagues, “What if we paused on this … to talk about the enforcement side of this?”

Perhaps staff should research how violators of the amended ordinance would be handled, he continued. “We’re putting a gauntlet down with this [proposed regulation],” Moran added.

Although Smith told Moran, “I hear you,” Smith added, “I believe we should move forward with this … and then we can fine-tune how we’re going to [enforce] it.”

Smith also alluded to comments that Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR), had made earlier about the fact that Charlotte County; the Cities of Sarasota and Venice, whose beaches county staff manages; and the Town of Longboat Key all have implemented smoking bans on their beaches, as allowed in a state law that went into effect on July 1, 2022.

The regulations should be consistent throughout Sarasota County, Smith said.

Those other local governments enacted their bans months ago, as noted in a slide that Rissler had shown the Sarasota County Commission.

Rissler told the board members that staff’s recommendation was for a ban on smoking — except for unfiltered cigars, which the new state law allows — within all of the county-owned beach parks and other parks.

“We know that the biggest enforcement [tools for] this will absolutely be … education and … permanent signage,” she acknowledged.

“I’m on board with this 100%,” Commissioner Joe Neunder said as soon as she completed her presentation.

When he asked whether the ban would apply to the parking lots for those facilities, as well, Rissler assured him that that is part of staff’s proposal.

“I get it with the youth parks,” Moran said, “and you can have kids on the beach.” However, he continued, “I just feel a real slippery slope there again of government … intrusion into people’s lives.”

Chair Ron Cutsinger also made clear his support for the change in county regulations. “I hear you, Commissioner Moran,” Cutsinger said. “We have to be careful about rights.”

“But out in the public, where it affects others,” Cutsinger continued, is a different situation from people being able to smoke in their homes or other private spots. “When someone’s smoking near me,” Cutsinger said, “I have to get away from it … It just takes over the whole area.”

The recent past and the present

In October 2022, Rissler was prepared to address the proposed ban when Commissioner Nancy Detert put a stop to the discussion before it began. “I think we need some public awareness about [the issue],” Detert added. “I’d just like a full airing on the details.”

When Commissioner Smith, who was elected in November 2022, raised the issue again in February, Detert finally said that her objection to a new county ban was a detail in the bill approved by the 2022 Legislature, which Gov. Ron DeSantis signed: “The Legislature says it is illegal for us to also say you can’t smoke a cigar on the beach,” Detert pointed out. “That puts us in the position of explaining a stupid policy to the general public.”

After Smith noted not only the health-related issues but also the fact that cigarette butts are a major pollutant on county beaches, Detert said she could support the cigarette ban.

Since Detert passed away on April 5, and Gov. DeSantis has yet to appoint her replacement, only four commissioners participated in the discussion this week.

Smith pointed out to his colleagues on April 25 that his mother “was a smoker her entire life”; she died of congestive heart failure.

“I believe government’s role is to protect us from ourselves on occasion,” he continued. “That’s why we have seatbelts.”

Moreover, Smith stressed, “The litter is huge on Siesta Key and every other beach and beach access. … To a smoker, all the world’s an ashtray.”

Cutsinger concurred with Smith on the litter issue.

During the board’s Open to the Public comment period at the start of the April 25 meeting, Charles Denault, chair of the Tobacco Free Partnership (TFP) of Sarasota County, urged the commissioners to proceed with a cigarette smoking ban. He reported that, during a beach clean-up in the Englewood area in March, volunteers collected approximately 8,000 butts in just 40 minutes.

The prohibition of smoking on the beaches will be good for the environment, for human beings and for wildlife, Denault told the commissioners. “It really makes a day at the beach that much more fun.”

At one point during the board discussion, Chair Ron Cutsinger did ask Rissler of PRNR whether staff also is proposing a ban on vaping, which was part of the Charlotte County ordinance.

“We did not necessarily consider vaping,” Rissler replied. If the commissioners wanted that to be part of the amended ordinance, she added, staff could include language to that effect.

Pressing the point

Even with his colleagues having voiced support for the smoking ban, Moran continued to debate the issue. He asked Rissler what the maximum penalty for littering is, as well as “Are we enforcing it?”

Rissler replied that she was not certain about the maximum penalty. Chapter 90 of the County Code of Ordinances imposes a $79 fine on most violations of regulations in that chapter, she added. However, she explained, enforcement of those regulations is left to law enforcement personnel.

Her belief, Rissler said, is that officers enforce the regulations in that chapter as they need to do so. Among other activities prohibited in that chapter, she noted, are allowing dogs on the public beaches and taking glass bottles onto a beach.

Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office leaders of the Siesta Key Substation have told Siesta Key Association (SKA) members for years that they try to educate offenders about county regulations and resort to fines only when education does not achieve compliance.

Then Moran asked Rissler whether her staff could be deputized to issue $500 civil citations for littering. “If we’re looking for punitive ways to control behavior,” he added, “I’d argue it might work.”

“We’d have to look into that further,” Rissler responded.

“I’m not speaking for the sheriff,” Moran continued. Sheriff Kurt Hoffman probably would say, “ ‘I have more important things to do’ ” than to issue citations to people leaving cigarette butts on beaches, Moran pointed out.

Cutsinger responded, “On this enforcement issue, I think our goal is to do a very robust education on this, and then we’re going to do signage that’s very clear in the [affected] areas.”

Commissioner Neunder talked about parents educating offenders in parks, noting that he accompanies his children to their organized athletic events in county parks. “You don’t want to be on the wrong side of a soccer mom or a soccer dad,” he said. “They’re as subtle as a brick to the face. … I’d bet considerable amounts of money,” he added, that parents will help bring offenders into compliance .

Neunder, too, agreed with Moran about the importance of private rights. Nonetheless, Neunder said, “Certainly, we all know the carcinogenic effects of smoking — any type of inhalation of smoke.”

Moran also proposed a scenario in which someone who has had a couple of alcoholic beverages becomes irritated over another person’s smoking, in violation of county regulations, and tells the smoker to stop. The offender might respond, “Go beat it,” Moran added. What would a law enforcement officer do in that situation, he asked. “I just think we need to think that all the way through …”

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis indicated that PRNR staff routinely deals with disputes over county park rules. “We can bring you all the scenarios we would think that we would encounter,” Lewis added, referring to the smoking issue.

After Smith made his motion, he said, “I think it’s time to put this ordinance in place and then we’ll work out the details.”