It was Friday, Jan. 9, and Kirk Buckman was working the day shift out of Belmont. "I carry a badge," Buckman said. "It's shiny and gold. Pretty neat."
As code enforcement officer for the community development department, Buckman is the tip of the legal spear that Belmont has enacted to break up the Peninsula city's smoke ring.
A controversial ordinance that became law Friday extends the ban on smoking even to residents' apartments and condos.
"I'm more like the stick than the — what was it you called me? — the pointy tip," Buckman said, sitting by the phone as he waited for the first sniff of statutorily sanctionable smoke. "But it's all part of the job. They enact 'em. I'm paid to enforce 'em."
The law is the first of its kind in California, going far beyond the statewide prohibition against lighting up in businesses, restaurants and bars. In Belmont, it is now illegal to smoke inside any multistory, multiunit dwelling. The City Council says enforcement should be "complaint driven," which means neighbors have to rat each other out before officer Buckman can bring evildoers to the nicotine-stained bar of justice.
If "providing education," as Buckman calls it, doesn't work, "we go from there." The fine for each citation is $100. No ifs, ands or butts.
'It's a law?'
"I'm very agitated," said Howard Odessky, who lives in a 16-unit apartment building in the city nestled in the hills just north of Palo Alto, with slightly more than 25,000 residents. He was on his way to buy a pack of smokes at a drugstore on Ralston Avenue on Friday when he was informed that if he attempted to enjoy them at home, he would be in violation of the puffing penal code. "Now it's a law? Today? I've had three cigarettes in my apartment already this morning. No, wait, four!"
Odessky appeared unbowed by the new law. "I'm going to continue to smoke in my house, in Belmont," he said. "Hey, put some towels in your vents. That's not my problem. What are they going to do, knock on somebody's door and say, 'Are you smoking in there?' It's ridiculous. I don't want to be a jerk about the whole thing, but, after all, a man's home is his castle."
If you live in a Belmont apartment complex, maybe not.
"That's a bs argument," says Dave Warden, the former councilman who pushed the ordinance to a 3-2 victory, despite receiving hate mail from smokers all over the world. "You can't walk around naked in your house with the blinds open, or you'll get arrested. You can't shoot a gun in your house, can't do drugs in your house, can't play loud music in your house and bother your neighbors. It's illegal."
And now, so is smoking.
Councilwoman Coralin Feierbach, who introduced the ordinance during her term as mayor in 2007, was tarred and nicotined as "the daughter of Hitler" by one critic, and an online effigy was digitally created of her wearing a Nazi uniform. Feierbach says that before the council cast the decisive vote, someone from the local board of realtors sent out a flyer claiming the police would be positioned on rooftops with telescopes to bring Belmont's citizenry into compliance with the ordinance.
Feierbach told the council during one of the early debates about the ordinance that she wanted Belmont to set an example for other cities. And, in fact, during the 14 months that it took for the law to go into effect, cities such as Novato, Calabasas, Loma Linda and Dublin have enacted similar ordinances. But those cities have banned smoking only in a percentage of each apartment building's units — typically about 75 percent — while Belmont is the only city in California to make the ban total.
Warren Lieberman, who voted against the ordinance, wasn't prepared to make the bad habits of apartment dwellers illegal, while it remains perfectly fine to smoke if you own your own single-family house in Belmont.
"I do believe that if people choose to violate the ordinance and smoke in their homes, many will feel somewhat like criminals," Lieberman says. "I think we could have tried to control it without turning people into outlaws."
The ordinance was originally brought before the City Council by Ray Goodrich, an 84-year-old resident of Bonnie Brae Terrace, an assisted-living facility. Goodrich had suffered through years of breathing difficulties brought on by his chain-smoking neighbors, moving from apartment to apartment to escape the fumes that he says seeped through the building's ventilation system.
"We owe a lot to our opposition," Goodrich said Friday. "At a thousand points along the way, we'd have been tickled to death to compromise, and we never got the opportunity. So we just kept pushing."
He organized an elder-posse of about 15 Bonnie Brae residents to join him at the council meetings when the anti-smoking ordinance was discussed. They arrived in wheelchairs and on walkers, but insistently stood up for themselves.
"I was a rabble rouser," says Goodrich, who nevertheless declined to speak at the council meetings. "What the hell, I'm 84. I have trouble maintaining a thought. I start sentences and then I forget where I'm going."
But he never lost track of which way the winds of change were blowing.
"Before, the nonsmoker really didn't have any support or power," Goodrich said Friday, celebrating his legislative triumph alone in his one-room apartment. "But there are a lot of people here today who are breathing a collective sigh of fresh air relief."
Contact Bruce Newman at firstname.lastname@example.org or (408) 920-5004.
Indoor and outdoor workplaces, except tobacco retailers.
Parks, sports stadiums, recreation trails and shopping malls.
Indoor and outdoor common areas of multiunit residences.
20 feet from outdoor areas where smoking is prohibited.
However, smoke "em
if you got "em in:
All single-family houses and their patios or yards.
Individual units of multiunit residences that don"t share a common floor or ceiling.
Owner-designated outdoor smoking areas of multiunit residences.
City-designated outdoor smoking areas.
Automobiles (unless otherwise prohibited by state law).
On all streets and sidewalks, unless they"re being used as outdoor workplaces, or at city-sponsored parades or fairs.
Source: Belmont city ordinance 1032