SHERIDAN — An ordinance requested by Sheridan County School District 2 that would have significantly increased the fines for underage tobacco use in the city of Sheridan, died on first reading in a 4-3 vote Monday night.
The proposed ordinance could have increased the fines as much as 2,900 percent from the current fee of $25 to a maximum of $750, according to city attorney Brendon Kerns.
The changes were requested by SCSD2 officials, who have expressed concern with the increase in vaping in the schools. Last week, Sheridan Junior High School disciplinarian Dan White reported tobacco usage at the middle school had increased six-fold over the last eight years, with 46 students caught with a tobacco product last year.
White said the rise of vaping is a major health concern in the schools and encouraged the city council to get involved.
“No. 1, it’s a health concern,” White said. “That’s the primary focus. Anytime you inhale things in your lungs, it’s not good. You look at what’s in a vape, there is a lot of stuff that these kids who are in a developmental stage, they don’t need to be inhaling this stuff.”
Following council discussion and public comment Monday, council reached the conclusion the ordinance needed more work, with less focus on fines and more focus on education and community service. Councilors argued fines were more likely to have an effect on parents than students.
Those who advocated forwarding the bill to second reading, like Councilor Aaron Linden, argued the council’s issues with the ordinance could be worked out over the next two readings. Linden, along with Steven Brantz and Mayor Rich Bridger, voted to approve the ordinance on first reading to meet the school district’s timeline of having something in place by the start of the school year.
“I think there are some things that need to be addressed, but I think the timing of this... was to give the school district some teeth in this by the time school is back in session, if not a little bit after,” Linden said. “If we were to delay or table this, we would not be on that time frame we were asked to be on by the school district. Although I think it needs work, I will be asking we push this through.”
Councilor Kristen Jennings said it did the city no favors to rush the ordinance.
“I realize the school district has asked for help, but at the same time, pushing forward something that could potentially be full of holes is not in the best interest of anybody,” Jennings said. “I think the premise is great, and I do see we have an issue., but at the same time, giving ourselves a deadline that will keep us from working through these questions and concerns…I don’t know how well that benefits anybody.”
Councilor Jacob Martin questioned whether the ordinance was necessary at all, and whether it was a form of local government overreach.
“I think this is just a health concern, not a criminal one,” Martin said. “So… (being forced to) pay a lot of money you don’t have, I don’t think it’s just.”
The council’s concerns about the higher fines echoes a conversation that happened at the state level in 2020, according to Kerns. The Wyoming Legislature voted to change the statewide fees for underage tobacco possession from $750 to $25 for many of the same reasons discussed by council, Kerns said.
“That’s how they ended up getting to this issue of, ‘let’s lower the fine to $25,’” Kerns said. “They wanted to get away from punishing parents. They wanted to focus more on tobacco classes, and they didn’t want to punish people who were 20 years old for the possession of tobacco…You guys have expressed the exact same concerns as (the Legislature).”
Even though the ordinance is not moving forward at this time, councilors seemed open to the possibility of continuing the conversation at a later date. Brantz, who works as a bus driver for the school district, said he remains convinced the district has a problem, and said he would love to help in any way possible.
“I’m well aware that we have vaping going on in the junior high and high school,” Brantz said. “We have it on our school buses. For the school district to come and ask for our help is pretty important, and they wouldn’t do that if there wasn’t a problem…From what I see, they do have a problem, and I hope this (discussion) is the first step in the right direction.”