CITYWIDE — There’s a stark choice facing proponents of tougher anti-smoking laws in Santa Monica.

Should they urge the City Council to expand its existing bans on smoking in many public places to include private balconies and patios in apartment buildings? Or should they back the campaign of Rent Control Board Commissioner Robert Kronovet, who is pushing for a citywide ballot measure that would go even further, banning smoking inside all apartments and condos in the city?

It’s a question that’s threatening to divide Santa Monica’s anti-smoking advocates.

For some, like James Levesque, a Santa Monica renter who moved out of his rent-controlled apartment because of a neighbor’s indoor smoking habit, Kronovet’s measure has a definite appeal.

Though he hasn’t yet decided whether to back the initiative, to him only an outright ban on smoking in multi-unit properties would be sufficient.

“I think an all-out ban with real penalties is the only way to protect tenants from secondhand smoke,” he said.

And that’s not a step he’s expecting the City Council to take on its own.

He said a ballot initiative may be “the only way to go,” because the council “is not going to make an appropriate decision to protect the renter’s health and safety in this city.”

The council, though, appears likely to consider the issue in greater detail this year.

On Sunday, the political party Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights updated its platform, adding, for the first time, a mention of secondhand smoke. The party’s members approved a statement that reads, “SMRR acknowledges the health impacts of secondhand smoke, and supports policies that protect all tenants, including protection from eviction.”

The addition of the secondhand smoke language could indicate a greater likelihood that a tougher anti-smoking law could pass the council because a majority of its members are aligned with SMRR.

Councilman Kevin McKeown, a SMRR member, said he expects the council to consider banning smoking on private balconies and patios within the next couple of months, but added he wouldn’t support a measure to ban smoking inside people’s homes, in part because he said such a law could become a way for building owners to kick out renters who smoke.

Although Kronovet’s proposed initiative includes the stipulation that “no violation of this [law] shall be used as grounds to terminate a tenancy,” renters’ rights advocates remain skeptical.

“If a landlord wants to get somebody out he’s just going to continue filing complaints against them until they’re so miserable they move out,” McKeown said. “And these are not going to be people paying the high market rents, that just isn’t the way the world works.”

Kronovet’s proposed ballot initiative would make smoking in multi-unit buildings an infraction punishable by a $500 fine for a first violation and a $1,000 fine for subsequent offenses. (Called the “Safe Air for Everyone Initiative,” it is not being backed by the non-profit group Smokefree Air for Everyone, or S.A.F.E., which has been active organizing those opposed to secondhand smoke in Santa Monica.)

So far, the group Santa Monicans for Non-Smoking Renters’ Rights has yet to take a formal position on Kronovet’s ballot initiative.

But Kronovet this week said he’s pushing ahead with his plan to get his initiative before voters in November. He hasn’t started gathering signatures yet, but said he expects to assemble a group of 10 to 25 people to help out.

“I’m going to make a go of it. The point is, though, that we’re trying to show some leadership, whether it gets on the ballot now or it gets on in [2012],” he said.

Even if the council acts to ban smoking on balconies and patios it won’t diminish the need for a tougher law, he said.

“I think it is weak,” he said of a possible balcony and patio smoking ban. “I think it’s an irrelevant ban because it pushes people inside, which is much more of a hazardous environment.”

Levesque said among those concerned about the issue there’s no settled opinion on how to best push for additional secondhand smoke protections.

“I think [Kronovet’s initiative] has the potential to create a rift because it’s ruffling the feathers of our politicians,” he said. “It’s basically the people trying to take care of their own health.”

Marlene Gomez, S.A.F.E.’s associate director, said the notion of implementing an outright ban by going around the City Council has provoked lots of discussion.

“The city has always been about doing baby steps. Jumping form that to the initiative has definitely caused some turmoil,” she said.

There’s some indication, though, that argument for an outright ban is having some resonance on the City Council.

Councilman Terry O’Day on Tuesday met with nonsmokers and afterward said he believes City Hall should strengthen anti-smoking laws and believes a ban covering only balconies and patios would suffice only as an “interim measure.”

“I think these people have justified concerns about neighbors smoking within their apartments,” he said.

nickt@www.smdp.com

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