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The Families First Children’s Museum in downtown Missoula spent most of December closed, a decision reached after concerns about potentially harmful air conditions.

Executive director Nick Roberts said throughout the fall, the museum space has been dealing with a steadily worsening smoke smell. After the first week of December it was decided the museum couldn’t stay open until the problem was resolved.

Roberts said the museum is in the process of testing to determine whether the odor is related to the private cigar club located directly below.

Earlier tests confirmed the air quality has exceeded the levels deemed healthy by the EPA “almost daily” Roberts said. New testing will find out whether the smoke smell and particulate is coming from tobacco.

“It should be able to tell us if what our noses tell us is true that it has a tobacco element to it,” he said.

The Missoula City-County Health Board is currently suing the Fool’s End Club, contending that it is violating the state’s Clean Indoor Air Act.

Roberts’ organization also holds parenting classes, mediation and other services for Missoula families. While most take place off site, he said they are in the process of looking for new locations for some of the events in January that were planned to be at the museum.

“We need to find the source and remedy it before feeling comfortable opening up again,” Roberts said.

He said despite testing, museum officials have not been able to find out whether neighboring buildings are experiencing the same air quality issues, or whether they are potentially coming from issues with the air system or any other leaks or faults in the building.

In February, the Missoula City-County Health Board filed a lawsuit against the cigar club that opened underneath the children’s museum last year. Calling the Fool’s End Club a “public nuisance” the suit seeks a court order prohibiting it from allowing smoking inside its Front Street location, or any other enclosed public space in the county.

The Health Board said it began getting complaints of a tobacco smell from staff and clients of the Children’s Museum in October 2016, less than a month after the cigar club opened. The suit says the club should be considered an enclosed public space, and as such cannot allow smoking under the Montana Clean Indoor Air Act.

In a court filing responding to the lawsuit, attorneys for Fool’s End filed for a counterclaim against the Health Board, saying that as a private club they should not be considered a public space under state law, and that despite being in the same building it should be considered a separate space from the museum above it.

“Access to the club is strictly and exclusively limited to club members and their invited guests,” the filing said.

In subsequent court filings, Donald Gaumer, one of the founding members of Fool’s End, said after hearing of complaints in the spring of the smoky odor, the club installed a second air cleaner, despite believing a single one was sufficient for a space of its size. An air system technician also verified that the cigar club’s HVAC system and that of the children’s museum were not connected in any way.

The lawsuit has various filing deadlines set for both sides throughout the next few months, although even if it goes to trial, that likely won’t occur until the back half of 2018 at the earliest.

Roberts said when they learned the suit was filed they asked the cigar club to cease operations until the litigation was over, which he said the club declined to do.

“We’re trying diligently to negotiate a conclusion to this,” he said.

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Law and Justice Reporter

Crime reporter for the Missoulian.