CITY HALL — A year after a law banning smoking in common areas of apartments and condos took effect, a City Hall report says the ban has been well received by tenants and landlords.
The report from the City Attorney’s Consumer Protection Unit released last week said City Hall has received relatively few complaints about the ban and claims “overall compliance has been good.”
The law, though, has been criticized by some tenants opposed to secondhand smoke who say the ban is too weak and too difficult to enforce.
Rather than requiring City Hall to issue citations to violators, the ordinance instead allows residents to take their complaints to small claims court — a process some anti-smoking advocates say is so cumbersome it’s unlikely to be used to get violators to abide by the law.
Esther Schiller, executive director of Smokefree Air for Everyone, said among tenants the smoking ban has gotten “mixed reviews.”
While it has probably encouraged some smokers to avoid apartment complex common areas, she said the requirement that tenants contact smokers and ask them to stop before initiating court proceedings is seen as a burden by those who don’t want to confront neighbors.
“If the city would assume responsibility for enforcement it would be a big help,” she said.
It’s unclear exactly how many people have used the ban so far to change their neighbors’ behavior.
City Hall’s report said “a few local tenants have stated their intent to pursue Small Claims Court actions in response to violations of the ordinance,” but noted staff was “unable to determine how many such cases actually have been brought in Small Claims Court or the results of such cases.”
One local tenant, Phillip Paley, this week told the Daily Press he filed a complaint in court but ended up dropping his case because the court process proved to be more trouble than it was worth.
Paley said he paid $60 and took time off work in order to file his claim against a neighbor who he says has repeatedly violated the ban. Included in that price was a fee charged by the Los Angles County Sheriff’s Office to serve his neighbor with the lawsuit.
Weeks later, though, he said he received a letter stating that the Sheriff’s Department had failed in six attempts to deliver the document. At that point Paley said he decided it wasn’t worth continuing with the case and asked the court to dismiss it.
“We should not have to be forced to spend our time and money to get this person to stop,” Paley said. “We decided we didn’t want to sue her with a law that was inadequate.”
He said to continue the case he would have had to take additional time off work and would have had to prove that his neighbor was in fact smoking in a common area — something the neighbor disputed. Even if successful, he said he would have won just $100 and might have encountered further difficulties trying to collect it.
Instead of requiring residents to go to court to enforce the law, Paley said he supports giving City Hall code enforcers the authority to issue citations.
Adam Radinsky, the head of the consumer protection unit in the City Attorney’s office, said City Hall officials considered that idea but determined it would be difficult for employees to enforce the ban because most violations occur in semi-private residential areas that are nearly impossible to patrol.
Radinsky said he was unaware of Paley’s case, but added, “Just because we haven’t heard doesn’t mean people haven’t had those experiences.”
Apartment owners, meanwhile, support the ban and would like to see it strengthened, said Wes Wellman, executive director of the Action Apartment Association.
“To date there have been no problems in connection with the ordinance reported to the association,” he said.
So far, there’s no plan to extend Santa Monica’s smoking ban. But the report from the consumer protection unit offered a list of options should the City Council consider taking additional steps to curb secondhand smoke.
Among the possibilities for a stronger ban listed in the report are:
• Banning smoking on private balconies and patios in multi-unit residential buildings;
• Requiring owners to survey, designate and disclose the smoking status of each unit at a property;
• Prohibiting smoking in all newly constructed residential buildings;
• Restricting indoor smoking for future tenancies.
Wellman said the list of options City Hall staff included in the report is incomplete.
“The staff fails to list the most obvious option that would provide the maximum level of protection — an outright ban on smoking in multi-family buildings,” he said. “This is obviously because they know the council majority opposes this idea and they want to safeguard their secure relationship with their benefactors.”