ATLANTIC CITY Casino workers hoping to see a full ban on smoking in their work place will have to wait another two years just to debate issue with the city.

Councilman Dennis Mason announced Wednesday that the city will not continue discussions about outlawing smoking in local gaming halls until the end of 2011, a decision made in private after a councilman who supports a full ban was barred from the debate.

Mason said the decision was made at council's recent Revenue and Finance Committee meeting, along with other conversations held in executive session.

Both sides were heard from,Mason said. It was completely fair.

Several resort casino workers, health groups and others have pressed the city for years to prohibit smoking outright. In 2007, council voted to outlaw smoking on 75 percent of individual gaming floors. Council then agreed to pass a full smoking ban in 2008, setting off widespread panic among casino executives concerned it would repel customers.

Council members eventually gave in to repealing the ordinance after a national economic downturn resonated locally, but the city swore to revisit the ban a year later. On Wednesday, Mason defended discussing and deliberating the ban in private, noting that anyone from the public wishing to comment about the ban can always take advantage of City Council's public-comment portion of their bi-weekly meetings.

But it wasn't just the general public prevented from engaging in the debate.

Councilman Bruce Ward, a leading voice in the fight to impose a full ban, was kept out of discussions about the issue after it was determined that he had a conflict of interest.

Ward, a local attorney, told The Press of Atlantic City on Wednesday that the Casino Association of New Jersey challenged the councilman's involvement because his firm, Villari, Brandes and Kline, represents six casino workers considering a class-action lawsuit against several resort casinos.

Ward learned of the conflict claim about a week ago and said City Council's Solicitor Billie Moore concurred with the association's argument.

The silenced councilman seemed more understanding of the economic argument Wednesday night than ever before, insisting that the city had exhausted its efforts.

I have to think in practical terms rather than be saddened by this, Ward said. In this economy, I didn't feel council would be able to have the will to go against the financial well-being of the city.

The other vocal resort politician supporting a full ban, outgoing Councilman Eugene Robinson, has been ill for more than a year and has mostly been absent from his job on council. He could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Joseph Corbo, president of the Casino Association of New Jersey, did not comment about the association's role in forcing Ward out of discussions. He did, however, commend the city for prioritizing the economy of the city and its main industry.

The current Atlantic City smoking ordinance was wisely approved by City Council a year ago after careful deliberation and consideration of all of the factors affecting the Atlantic City marketplace in an effort to minimize the loss of employment opportunities for Atlantic City residents, Corbo wrote in a prepared statement. Given the fact that the casino industry is now, a year later, experiencing the most challenging set of circumstances in its history, the Casino Association of New Jersey agrees with City Council that there could not be a worse time than now for it to consider a more restrictive smoking ordinance.

Liz String, a veteran dealer at Harrah's Resort, said there is no worse time than when an employer is weakening the health of its employers.

Now is the time to save lives, and that's what we're talking about, she said.

After being informed of Council's decision Wednesday night, String immediately gasped and said, Oh, my God.

They say we knew what we were getting into, she continued. Well, so did regular bartenders and waitresses. They knew the same thing, but now they don't have to deal with it. I guess we're not worth saving.

Contact Michael Clark:

609-272-7204

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