Garcia: Smoke and mirrors 

The next time members of the world’s press descend on the quiet enclave of Belmont, they better bring more than their microphones, their satellite trucks and their predisposed notions.

If not, they’re going to have a tough time finding someone to talk to — a situation I managed to avoid just in time this week before the latest batch of televised stories hit the airwaves.

For those still reeling from the frenzied start of March Madness, Belmont has been grabbing a lot of headlines around the globe these days because officials there are considering an ordinance on smoking that would be among the strictest in the United States. The key word here is "considering," because the City Council has yet to pass anything and probably won’t for more than a month.

But you wouldn’t be able to tell that from someof the coverage of the issue, which Mayor Coralin Feierbach said has been exaggerated, overblown and just plain wrong.

Feierbach was positively fuming when I called her this week — so angry that at first she said she wasn’t going to give any more interviews and only relented when I told her that I would do my best to give a fair, accurate portrait of what her city is trying to accomplish — which is a lot.

The city is pondering a law that would ban smoking in apartments, outside restaurants, in parks and in privately-owned buildings. Council members also want to declare secondhand smoke a nuisance and are even looking at banning smoking on sidewalks.

But the public exhalations that have upset Feierbach, a 33-year resident of Belmont, have been over some other suggestions included in the sweeping anti-smoking proposal that will probably never be passed, but are there for the council to deliberate. Those include banning smoking in cars used for business, which Feierbach concedes is probably outside the city’s jurisdiction. But that hasn’t stopped the press from having a field day on the long arm of Belmont reaching out to snatch cigarettes out of the mouths of random passers-by.

The bottom line is that Belmont is just trying to upgrade its smoking ordinance along the lines of several other municipalities, mostly to protect renters from the perils of secondhand smoke, Feierbach told me. The council had the Public Health Institute in Oakland help them draft up a sweeping ordinance "with everything but the kitchen sink in it," Feierbach said, just so it had the option of picking and choosing.

"I just wanted to bring our ordinance up to date, because the truth is we shouldn’t be smoking in our parks and eateries," she said. "But we’re not talking about banning smoking in people’s homes, or even outside patios in restaurants. We’re going to look at a lot of things calmly. This is something that is still in its infancy."

And it’s probably going to stay there awhile because the mayor told me that there has been so much hyperventilating over the proposed smoking ordinance that she wants to let it rest for a bit so Belmont doesn’t get another 200 media inquiries like it has in the past few months. That’s a little overwhelming for a city of just 25,000 people that prides itself on its liberalness but likes to do so quietly. The county of San Mateo even has stricter smoking laws than Belmont now, but it didn’t get the television crews huffing and puffing about them, the mayor told me.

Feierbach said the whole notion of a ban came about because members of a senior housing building had complained about health problems relating to smoking, and she realized that the city’s smoking laws were well behind the times. So the council decided to look at as many ideas as possible and then break it apart.

Instead, those pieces became fodder for individual stories that fueled more media scrutiny and resulted in a televised story about how Belmont wants to ban smoking for everyone everywhere.

"When I see these stories, I’m wondering if they attended the same council hearing that I did," Feierbach said. "But when we had our last meeting, it must not have been interesting enough because about a third of the way in, all the press left."

It’s gotten so bad, so hopelessly exaggerated, that Feierbach has decided to do what every small civic agency does when it feels the heat of the camera lights — call for a study session. And if that doesn’t slow things down, nothing will.

"We’re just trying to solve some people’s [health] problems," she said. "I mean, the funny thing is, I don’t even think there’s that many smokers in Belmont. But I’m just trying to deal with issues, and sometimes I get whacked and sometimes I don’t."

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Ken Garcia

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