EL CERRITO -- The City Council showed it's determined to improve on an "F" grade El Cerrito received in a report on regional regulation of smoking, by moving Tuesday to ban lighting up in parks and open space, sidewalks, multifamily housing and commercial areas.
The effort came in the form of directions to assistant city manager Karen Pinkos, who is leading a team designing a city ordinance to control secondhand smoke.
Council members also told Pinkos they would like a tobacco sales ordinance that would raise the age to purchase tobacco products to 21 and directed her to explore the idea of hiring an enforcement officer who would have the power to issue citations accompanied by fines to violators.
The rules also would apply to the smoking of medical marijuana and e-cigarettes.
Currently, secondhand smoke in El Cerrito is covered by state law, which only prohibits smoking within 20 feet of a public building, 25 feet of tot lots and playgrounds, and in indoor commons areas of apartment buildings and condominium complexes.
The proposed city ordinance will be written in time for evaluation at a community meeting set for June 5, and the council plans to take up a final version in July or August.
About 61 percent of California cities, including El Cerrito, received F grades in a statewide report card on secondhand smoke issued by the American Lung Association.
However, El Cerrito is surrounded by cities and areas that received A grades, including Richmond, Albany, Berkeley and unincorporated Kensington, which is covered by a Contra Costa County ordinance, Pinkos said.
"It's embarrassing that we got an F," said Councilman Mark Friedman, who suggested that El Cerrito model its smoking regulations after an ordinance in Walnut Creek and the county ordinance, which are among the most restrictive in the state.
"We need to go from an F to an A+ and deal with the issue in an aggressive, health-oriented way," Friedman said. "We pride ourselves on being the greenest city we can."
Council members reached consensus after listening to several speakers who complained about health effects from secondhand smoke in apartment buildings, the problem of cigarette butts and filters migrating into storm drains and eventually into San Francisco Bay, and other concerns.
"Smoking is a litter and fire risk in outdoor areas," said Ralph Boniello, a board member with Friends of Five Creeks. "Cigarette filters are non-biodegradable, and birds and animals eat them."
Edna Chamberlain, who lives in an El Cerrito apartment complex, said smokers linger in outside areas "all night, every night," and there is secondhand smoke in her unit constantly.
"I dread going to my home now," she said.
Other speakers characterized El Cerrito as a "safe haven for smokers" now that nearby cities have become stricter about smoking in apartment complexes.
"Smoking in multifamily housing should be zero indoors or out," said Councilman Greg Lyman, who also suggested a one-year period to phase in the new rule. "You should have to leave the property to smoke."
Denice Dennis of the Contra Costa County Tobacco Prevention Project addressed the council's concerns about enforcement, saying that Contra Costa has not issued any citations or fines since its secondhand smoke ordinance has gone into effect.
"When we receive a complaint, we write a warning letter, and so far everyone has come into compliance," she said.
Utility Users Tax
Earlier in the meeting, the council heard an analysis of factors that are causing the city to lose revenue from its Utility Users Tax, which is set at 8 percent of what customers pay for water, electricity, gas, video and telephone services.
Water conservation, increased use of solar energy and bundling of telecommunications services are causing declines in some customers' bills and resulting loss of UUT income, said senior financial analyst Lori Trevino.
"There are a number of things the city could do (to capture more revenue), but it's going to require staff time to do it," Trevino said. "It's hard to know if it's going to be worthwhile."
Wall of Fame
The council also approved the nomination of historian and community activist Tom Panas to El Cerrito's Wall of Fame, which honors residents "who have made significant contributions ... over an extended period of time through their work on special projects."
Panas will be formally inducted at a council meeting in July or August. There are currently 19 Wall of Fame inductees.