The York County Council took the first step Monday night toward amending the smoking ban for private clubs.
The council voted 5-2 to keep the amendment alive with Councilmen Buddy Motz and Joe Cox voting firmly against it.
But the decision did not come without heated debate and outbursts of clapping and comments from both supporters and opponents who made up a standing-room-only crowd of about 50 people in council chambers at the county's Agricultural Building.
Under the proposed amendment, smoking would be allowed in nonprofit private clubs such as the VFW and American Legion and for-profit clubs. All must collect annual dues, cater to members 21 years old or older, create a governing body and bylaws or constitution, post smoking signs and ensure that all members and employees acknowledge in writing the danger of tobacco smoke.
Before taking effect, the amendment must be approved two more times by the council and have a public hearing. At any point in the process, the amendment's language can change or the council can vote it down.
As supporters of the amendment poured out of the council chambers, they expressed both hope that the ban will be lifted and concern that the fight isn't over.
"Hopefully they're heading in the right direction," said Frank Roach, supporter of the amendment and commander of the American Legion Post 34 in Rock Hill. For him, the smoking ban has meant a loss of business that has hindered the legion's ability to give back to the community.
Roach said the legion's revenues from bingo and food and alcohol sales have diminished by about 25 percent since the countywide smoking ban took effect over a year ago. That money is what the organization uses to fund organizations such as the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and the Red Cross, to name a few.
"We used to have plenty of money to give," he said, but now the legion is cutting costs elsewhere and cutting back on their giving.
The council's initial approval does not yet indicate a victory for supporters of the amendment. Councilman Chad Williams, for example, approved the first reading but said he's unhappy with the definition of "private club." He wants to wait to decide his position until after a public hearing.
Councilman Motz spoke out most adamantly against the amendment.
"The problem is how to define private club," he said. "It's going to open up a gateway for other people to just say, 'I'm a private club.'"
Cox agreed. "We're opening up a loophole that will start eroding the entire ordinance," he said.
Councilmen Paul Lindemann and Tom Smith spoke most strongly in favor of the amendment, arguing that only a "select crowd" who attend the clubs would be impacted, Smith said.
Councilman Roy Blake said an exception definitely needs to be made for businesses such as cigar bars that primarily sell smoking products. He, too, spoke in favor of supporting an exemption for private clubs.
But if public concern is any indicator, the council might get an earful from both sides before the issue is settled one way or the other.
As physician and former Rock Hill VFW commander Robert Sweet told the council, "As a veteran and a physician I can see both sides of the issue, but the health issue overrides any of the rhetoric we heard tonight."