Almanac

News - March 10, 2010

Puff in public, you could get busted

• Menlo council agrees on smoking law, though not all smoke has cleared.

by Sean Howell

Menlo Park's City Council has signaled its consent to a bold set of laws that would effectively make it illegal to smoke within city limits when it affects a non-consenting person. Now, all the city has to do is explain those laws to people.

The council at its March 2 meeting agreed on revisions to the city's smoking ordinance that would prohibit smoking in places open to the public, including city parks, some privately owned parking lots, and places of congregation such as ATM machines and bus stops. Smoking would be banned within "a reasonable distance" of openings to buildings, and in common areas of multi-family residences, with landlords allowed to cordon off specific smoking areas.

The ordinance also declares second-hand smoke a nuisance, enabling people to take legal action against others who light up in their vicinity — in an adjoining apartment unit, for instance.

Informing the city's residents of the new restrictions and explaining those restrictions, however, might take some doing. Prior to the council meeting, the city had focused on communicating the proposed ordinance to residents of multi-family dwellings, thinking they would be most affected by it. But after realizing that the ordinance would have more of an impact on commercial properties than they had originally thought, city officials now plan to spend more time explaining the new law to business people.

There has already been confusion about what the ordinance will cover. Bill Davis, owner of Knickerbockers Cigars near Cafe Borrone, came to the council meeting to ask if the new laws would preclude his customers from enjoying their cigars on a patio outside his business. After ascertaining that the patio was open to the public, City Attorney Bill McClure said that, indeed it would.

Reached at his shop two days after the meeting, Mr. Davis said he was pleased the council had decided to grandfather in his operation.

The council decided to do what?

"I checked with one of the council members, just to make sure," Mr. Davis said. "He said that was right."

City Clerk Margaret Roberts said she didn't believe any grandfathering took place at the meeting, and that smoking would be prohibited on that patio.

Of course, creating laws is almost invariably a complicated process, often just as frustrating for the people who draft them as the people to whom they apply. The March 2 meeting featured a rare appearance by the mayor's gavel, with Rich Cline using it to cut off a brief squabble between Councilman Andy Cohen and Councilman John Boyle, who was the lone dissenter in the vote.

Mr. Cohen accused Mr. Boyle of delay and obfuscation, while Mr. Boyle said the city hadn't thought through the ordinance. The ordinance goes too far, he said, noting that people wouldn't be allowed to smoke in the parking lot in front of the Safeway complex on El Camino Real, and that smokers wouldn't have anywhere to extinguish their cigarettes, with ash cans prohibited in non-smoking areas.

But even the council members who supported the ordinance acknowledged it could entail a major adjustment in behavior for smokers. Councilman Heyward Robinson asked Mr. McClure whether someone attending a city-sponsored block party — where smoking would be prohibited — could leave the crowd to smoke in one of the city's unoccupied parking lots.

"That's actually illegal?" Mr. Robinson asked.

"Correct," was Mr. McClure's reply.

"Where should they go smoke?"

"In a designated smoking area."

But the law is one thing, and enforcement quite another. If smokers keep a safe distance from other humans and agree to extinguish their tobacco delivery systems when asked, they shouldn't have much of a problem, Mr. McClure said.

The council is expected to approve the ordinance in a final vote, tentatively scheduled for the March 23 meeting.

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