County debates e-cig law, search for new county attorney


Published: Tuesday, November 12, 2013 at 7:54 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, November 12, 2013 at 7:54 p.m.

The Alachua County Commission was unanimous in much of its decision-making Tuesday, although a proposed e-cigarette ordinance and the search for a new county attorney generated lengthier discussions than the rest of the agenda.

With little discussion, all the commissioners voted to approve the bid ranking and construction contract for resurfacing the Northwest 16th Avenue corridor in Gainesville.

The 4-mile stretch of road between Northwest 57th Terrace and Northwest 13th Street, which is known as Northwest 16th Avenue, Northwest 23rd Avenue and Northwest 16th Boulevard at various points, will be resurfaced, among other improvements.

“I guess the burning question is, ‘How quickly can this start?’ ” Commissioner Lee Pinkoson, whom the board chose Tuesday to serve as chair for the next year, said to staff Tuesday.

Construction should begin soon after the county hosts a preconstruction conference Monday with Anderson Columbia Co., the Lake City-based contractor it awarded the project to for $7.5 million. Gainesville Regional Utilities will cover part of the cost.

The commission also approved, with little discussion, a proposal to resolve the county’s worker’s compensation lien against legal proceedings involving Emanuel Baker, who was paralyzed in a July 2012 accident while working for Alachua County Public Works.

Baker and another employee were removing a fallen tree when it tangled with a telephone line, causing a telephone pole to snap in two and fall on him, according to the county agenda.

Baker filed a third-party lawsuit against the pole’s owner and was awarded an $8 million settlement. The distribution of that settlement is temporarily suspended pending the resolution of the county’s and its insurance carrier’s liens as well as the resolution of a dispute between Baker and his attorneys over the amount of legal fees he incurred.

Baker has agreed to provide 13 percent of the previous worker’s compensation benefits he received as well as a 13 percent offset against future benefits in return for the county and its excess carrier resolving their liens, County Attorney Dave Wagner said.

As of Sept. 24, Baker had received around $1.45 million in worker’s compensation benefits. The county paid the first $250,000, while its carrier covered the rest. Wagner said the county won’t get any of that quarter-million back.

The commission approved the proposal 4-0. Commissioner Charles “Chuck” Chestnut IV recused himself due to what he said could be perceived as a conflict of interest since his brother, Chris Chestnut, owns The Chestnut Firm, which is involved in the dispute with Baker.

While the road and lien issues were decided quickly, the commission spent some time Tuesday debating whether to set a salary cap as the county goes through the process of hiring a new county attorney to succeed Wagner, who will retire at the end of February.

Commissioner Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson supported a salary cap while other board members had concerns about it. Byerly said he’d vote with the majority during the hiring process because he wants to go through it together as a board, although he worried setting the cap too low would drive away top prospects.

Chestnut shared his concern, while Commissioner Susan Baird worried about setting it too high because she said negotiations always end up going toward the salary cap if one is set.

When Pinkoson said he wouldn’t support a motion for a $175,000 base-salary cap because it was too high, Byerly said he would support his original desire not to set a figure at all if the vote would be split anyway.

The commission eventually voted 4-1 with Hutchinson in dissent to offer candidates a contract that doesn’t specify a salary, instead stating it is negotiable based upon experience, and includes 5 percent in deferred compensation and a car allowance of around $450 per month.

Wagner said he makes about $156,860 and gets the car allowance but doesn’t have county-funded deferred compensation. The county will interview its candidates for the position in early December.

E-cigarettes also sparked discussion Tuesday as commissioners debated whether the county should prohibit people from using them in nonsmoking areas.

E-cigarettes convert liquid nicotine into vapor and don’t include the chemicals found in tobacco cigarettes. The proposed ordinance, if approved, would ban the sale of e-cigarettes to minors, require that stores keep them behind the counter, and prohibit their use in nonsmoking areas of the county.

While banning sales to minors was not controversial among the commissioners, Baird and Byerly were wary of prohibiting adults from using them in nonsmoking spaces.

Baird said she was unsure if e-cigarettes give off a smell similar to cigarettes, which she said can be an annoyance. If they don’t, she questioned banning their use in public places.

Byerly wanted to know if e-cigarettes are harmful to bystanders.

“If these products actually don’t harm anyone else and don’t create an offense to anyone else, then I’m a little concerned about prohibiting their use by adults in a public place,” he said.

Hutchinson said you can smell whatever flavor the e-cigarette is when someone is vaping, which is what using an e-cigarette is called. He also said the vapor contains a low amount of nicotine, although he didn’t know how much compared to cigarette smoke.

Just because something is addictive doesn’t mean it should be banned, Byerly said, since sugar would be pretty high on that list.

Wagner said there could be an enforcement issue with banning e-cigarette use in nonsmoking areas because vaping isn’t the same as smoking and an e-cigarette is not a tobacco product. He also told the board there don’t seem to be any definitive studies addressing the health impacts of e-cigarette vapor.

The board unanimously voted to authorize the county to advertise for an upcoming public hearing on the e-cigarette ordinance and expects staff to return with additional information.

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gainesville.com.

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