The county commissioners on Tuesday gave final approval to a piece of legislation that will permanently ban the use of tobacco products on all county-owned properties.

The law will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2022.

The commissioners first introduced the legislation in May, an ordinance that would prohibit smoking and the use of any kind of tobacco product — including vape pens and chewing tobacco — from any of its properties, whether indoors or out.

But there has been little talk of it in the months since, the commissioners indicating they wanted to give the news awhile to sink in before giving it final approval.

Last month, they scheduled a public hearing for Tuesday morning, but no county employees showed up to speak either in favor of or against it, paving an easy way forward for the commissioners to give it final approval.

State law already mandates that there be no smoking or use of tobacco products within eight feet of a county-owned building, but that legislation does allow counties and municipalities to pass more restrictive measures.

The no tobacco rule here now extends to any county-owned property, including enclosed spaces, public areas, restrooms, lobbies, vehicles (ones owned or leased by the county) and outdoor areas, among others.

As of Jan. 1, that means all tobacco products are prohibited on the courthouse lawn as well as the adjacent parking lot.

County attorney Andrew Porter has repeatedly been quick to reiterate that the legislation only extends to county-owned property, such as the courthouse, annex, jail, community corrections building, parks, etc. and not privately-owned properties or businesses.

“This does not affect any area not directly owned by the county,” he said again during the sparsely-attended public hearing Tuesday. “It does not apply to private businesses or private landowners.”

County officials sited the well-known health concerns associated with smoking (as well as second-hand smoking) as one of the primary reasons for passing the legislation, but of equal importance was what they believed to be a loss of productivity from a handful of county employees taking too many smoke breaks during the work day.

And while the commissioners for months have indicated their intent to eventually pass the legislation — and seeing little, if any, push back from county employees — they did take back up discussions of its enforcement on Tuesday before making it final.

The ordinance reads that the enforcement arm includes deputies with the Knox County Sheriff’s Departments as well as the county health officer and all supervisors, specifically elected officers, such as the auditor, treasurer, clerk, etc.

But commissioner Kellie Streeter wanted the ordinance to be clear that the commissioners themselves, too, had the power to enforce the new rule.

“I don’t see why we shouldn’t be able to also enforce this rule when on county property,” she said, attending the meeting remotely, via FaceTime.

Porter indicated that that would be a given since the commissioners themselves serve in a supervisory capacity.

“So what occurs on the property, you have control of,” he said. “You have the ability to say, ‘You’re violating this ordinance by smoking on the property.’ ”

But the commissioners pointed to the county’s own handbook, which says only an employee’s direct supervisor can oversee disciplinary measures. Porter said, however, that the two are quite different.

The commissioners can enforce the ordinance, but if an employee receives too many strikes for intentionally violating it, any disciplinary measures taken as a result would fall to that person’s direct supervisor.

A first violation draws just a warning. Other, subsequent violations, however, can result in a fine of up to $100 or, eventually, the loss of county employment altogether.

Even still, the commissioners agreed to add a sentence to the tobacco ordinance clearly making them a part of the enforcement arm. That way, they pointed out, there is no confusion.

Streeter, too, wanted to reiterate that ordinance also includes all county parks, including the Fox Ridge Nature Park, Ouabache Trails Park and the dog parks at Hillcrest Park, among others.

The legislation, too, will extend to the cabins available for rent at Ouabache Trails Park as well as the campsites themselves.

Streeter also said the legislation is about much more than just “being in control of (county) employees,” and she pointed to major employers like Vincennes University and Good Samaritan, neither of which allows for smoking on their campuses.

Streeter said it’s “widely accepted that smoking is no longer allowed” in many public places, and it’s time the county added itself to the ranks.

“It may seem harsh to some, but I feel like it’s becoming more of a concern in regards to employee health and productivity,” she said. “This is what’s best for our county’s future.

“And we’ve given (employees) plenty of notice that this is happening.”

Copyright ©2021 Vincennes Sun Commercial