A funny thing happened the other day on the way to a no-smoking ordinance in Walnut Creek. Councilman Justin Wedel, the dissenter in a 4-1 pro-ordinance vote, said he planned to bring an initiative before the electorate to overturn the new law.
Individuals and interest groups are forever introducing ballot-box legislation in California, the most initiative-crazed state in the nation. But it's not every day that an elected official pledges to undo a vote of his colleagues. It wasn't as colorful as thumbing his nose, but it sent the same message.
"I'm disappointed," said Mayor Cindy Silva, choosing her words carefully, "that the one council member who was the minority voice, after a very carefully thought-out action that involved a great deal of outreach and discussion, feels compelled to try to unravel it at the ballot box."
If it weren't for the mayor's self-discipline, I think she might have used a stronger word than "disappointed."
Wedel -- who's not a smoker, dislikes secondhand smoke and attributes his grandmother's death to the habit -- argues that he is interested solely in protecting private property rights. He's fine with a ban on smoking in public areas, but he thinks the council overstepped in prohibiting it in multifamily residences.
"When there are extremely important issues like this, where four individuals on the council are taking away rights protected by the Constitution, I think the people have the right to vote on that," he said.
I'm not sure where in the Constitution the right to smoke is protected, but his point is that residents shouldn't be told how to behave within the confines of their apartments, even if they opt to suck down tar and nicotine. That's a position, of course, that ignores the rights of neighbors to breathe without inhaling secondhand smoke.
"A secondhand-smoke ordinance is a nuisance ordinance," Silva said, "and it's no different than ordinances that preclude noise, certain pets or animals. It is to protect neighbors from activity that intrudes on their rights.
"If two people have next-door patios, they share common air space. To say the guy in Unit A has a full right to smoke means the guy in Unit B has no rights at all."
About 4,200 petition signatures will be needed to bring Wedel's initiative to next November's ballot, but that's not his only quest. In a separate petition, he's seeking to prevent the council from banning plastic carry-out bags or even endorsing such a state law, contending that it increases costs to business and shows no proof of reducing trash.
So, you might be asking: How does the councilman determine which issues the council can decide and which ones require a public vote?
"I think it's going to be different for every individual where to draw the line where government begins and government ends," he said. "When government is trying to take away the rights of the individual, that's when people should have a say."
Like the right not to wear seat belts, perhaps?
"My issue isn't seat belts," he said. "I don't want to confuse the issue."
No confusion on Silva's part. She thinks the freshman councilman misses the point.
"I don't think legislating at the ballot box is good government," she said. "We are elected to work together, listen to the community, take in all the perspectives, debate and make a decision."
That working together part could stand some improvement.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears every Sunday, Monday and Thursday.