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Originally published February 18, 2010 at 6:25 PM | Page modified February 19, 2010 at 8:36 AM

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Seattle parks chief relaxes smoking ban to a 25-foot rule

That regulation totally banning smoking in Seattle parks? Never mind about the "totally" part. Just smoke, chew or engage in "other tobacco use" 25 feet away from other park patrons, said Parks Superintendent Timothy Gallagher in a news release issued late Thursday afternoon. If that sounds like backtracking, it is.

Seattle Times staff reporter

It was backtracking time Thursday for Seattle Parks Superintendent Timothy Gallagher as he announced in a news release that he isn't imposing a total ban on smoking in city parks after all.

Starting April 1, you can smoke, chew or engage in "other tobacco use" as long as you're 25 feet from other park patrons.

It seems public comments that railed against the new rule worked.

Gallagher wasn't available to personally make a statement on the matter on Thursday because on Monday he went skiing in Oregon, and he won't be back at work until next Monday, said Parks spokeswoman Dewey Potter.

Potter said she didn't know where in Oregon Gallagher was, but apparently he learned the extent of the public reaction via an Internet or phone connection.

A story about Gallagher's decision, announced Wednesday, to impose a total smoking ban in Seattle parks had 344 comments — most of them negative — by 6 p.m. Thursday on seattletimes.com

Said one commenter, "OK, so next they should ban fat people from parks. As they too 'set a poor example for children.' "

That referred to one of Gallagher's reasons for banning smoking — that it set a bad example for children.

The city's parks board, an advisory panel, had voted on Feb. 11 to restrict smoking to select areas of parks.

In a memo made public on Wednesday, Gallagher unilaterally overruled the board and banned smoking entirely.

He wrote the memo before going skiing, Potter said.

In his memo, Gallagher gave this explanation for a total ban on smoking:

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"As an agency that has a fundamental mission to support the health and well-being of Seattle residents, it is appropriate and beneficial to prohibit the use of tobacco products at parks and park facilities."

After a day of public furor, Gallagher backed off.

"Based on the input from the public that followed my initial decision," Gallagher said in the news release, "I have decided that a gradual approach to a smoking ban is reasonable."

Potter said the department will assess comments about the 25-foot rule and see whether any additional changes are needed. She said she believed peer pressure would enforce the rule, especially in playgrounds and at beaches.

Those cited for breaking the rule will be banned for 24 hours, said Potter. And if they return within those 24 hours, they could be charged with criminal trespassing.

That statement relaxing the smoking ban was put together on Thursday afternoon after Gallagher called his office.

Aaron Pickus, assistant communications director for Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, said the mayor "supported the superintendent's decision to go forward with the parks board recommendation."

Asked about public comments suggesting Seattle was becoming a "nanny state," Pickus said, "That's a larger question right now. I think the effects of secondhand smoke are well documented. The recommendations of the parks board are reasonable."

Jackie Ramels, chairwoman of the park commissioners, said she thought Gallagher's backtracking showed that Seattle parks officials "do respond to public opinion."

Another recent controversy that aroused public ire was a proposed ban on spitting in parks.

That also resulted in numerous e-mails to the department, which subsequently removed the spitting ban from its proposed new rules.

Meanwhile, the Web commenters were having a field day.

Wrote one, "If they get rid of smoking, spitting and sex in parks I'll no longer have any reason to go to the park!"

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

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