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Can Belmont change the world?
November 17, 2006, 12:00 AM Bill Silverfarb

On Tuesday night the Belmont City Council voted unanimously to pursue a law that would prohibit smoking everywhere except in single-family detached homes. The vote came late in the evening and the Daily Journal’s Dana Yates was the only reporter to stick around to report on the council’s actions.

Yates had the foresight early in the meeting to know Belmont was on the verge of making U.S. history. Her story went national on Wednesday and the Daily Journal Web site got hit more than 100,000 times, briefly shutting down our server. The paper also received letters to the editor from across the nation and Canada, including Florida, Texas, Virginia, New Jersey and Montreal.

On the Daily Journal Web site’s quick poll we asked: "Is the city of Belmont right in moving toward a smoke ban for the entire city except single-family homes?”

Of the 5,476 responses, as of Thursday afternoon, the overwhelming majority, 85 percent, voted "no,” saying it’s a person’s right to smoke.

There is no science to this poll and I have a feeling some tobacco exec in North Carolina is responsible for many of these "no” votes.

In my opinion, this whacky idea, from an oftentimes wacky council, is the most profound and meaningful action any council, anywhere, could undertake. It’s a bold move and it’s the right move. There is no reason why anyone, anywhere should have to breathe in carcinogenic secondhand smoke. It’s a killer whether you believe it or not.

Belmont’s city attorney is now charged with drafting a law that will stand up to court challenges. The tobacco industry is undoubtedly ready to fight this proposed law but I believe, if Belmont sticks by its guns, it can win this fight. It’s a costly endeavor that will take years to solve. But if the council stands by its decision, Belmont really can change the world.

Typically, Americans rely on Congress to enact such world-changing laws, but Congress is afraid of big tobacco. Congress relies far too much on big tobacco money and, therefore, would never pursue such a noble cause. Tiny Belmont, however, is not under big tobacco’s thumb. What Belmont is doing is something lawmakers at the state and federal level should be doing. It’s forward thinking at its best. If Belmont succeeds, other cities across the nation will follow suit.

"I feel like a revolution is taking place …” Serena Chen, policy director of the American Lung Association of California, said at the Tuesday night council meeting.

It is a revolution. It’s like Belmont is going to war. There is one problem with going to war, however. Sometimes the war can consume all of your time and resources. The war can become all that matters and little things, like hiring a city manager, fixing crumbling roads or funding the fire department can get lost in the commotion. To most Belmont residents, tackling the world’s smoking problem is probably not why they voted for a particular council candidate. Filling potholes and keeping the public safe are probably more pressing needs for Belmont residents.

The Belmont City Council is without a city manager because it can’t find the right fit. Why is that? There is currently no true leader in Belmont. The council has essentially decided it doesn’t need a permanent city boss. It has essentially decided it is the boss. But on this council there is infighting,  personality clashes and accusations leveled at each other almost weekly. This council voted to raise garbage rates recently at an overbearing 25 percent – something that would not have happened if a seasoned city manager were at the helm. Recently, one of the city councilmembers even showed up with police officers at an event at Notre Dame de Namur University, because music playing violated the city’s noise ordinance. The music was part of a once-a-year event and it was shut down just after 9 p.m. if I remember correctly.

There are some big heads on that council and the attention this smoking ban has garnered has probably helped some of these heads get even bigger.

Belmont residents should be proud of its council for pursuing this smoking ban. But, Belmont residents should also remind its council that there is actually a city that needs to be run. There are roads that desperately need fixing, firefighters that need to get paid and a city manager to hire.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to change the world and perhaps this wacky group of elected officials has what it takes to do just that. Good luck, Belmont. You’re going to need it.

Bill Silverfarb’s column runs every Friday. He can be reached by e-mail: or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 104. What do you think of this column? Send a letter to the editor:

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