WALNUT CREEK -- Citing his oath to uphold the Constitution, Councilman Justin Wedel says Walnut Creek voters, not elected leaders, should decide where people can smoke and whether shoppers can choose paper or plastic.
Wedel aims to get two initiatives on the June ballot -- one that would repeal a portion of the city's recently adopted secondhand-smoke ordinance and another to prevent a ban on plastic shopping bags in Walnut Creek.
"This is not a smoking or plastic bag issue; this is a government-intrusion-into-our-daily-lives issue," said Wedel, elected to his first term in 2012. "I swore an oath to protect the Constitution of the U.S. and the constitution of this state. I would not be upholding my oath if I didn't take every action necessary to make sure people's private property rights are protected."
This move is a clear rebuke of his council colleagues over a secondhand-smoke ordinance that passed 4-1 in October. It also is an attempt to pre-empt any ordinance banning plastic grocery bags; work on such an ordinance is already underway and supported by a council majority.
Wedel will not pursue these initiatives alone, having formed a group called Speak Up for Walnut Creek, and says he has supporters who will gather signatures. So far, he has financed this effort completely on his own; a lawyer working pro bono is helping draft the initiatives, he said.
The secondhand-smoke ordinance bans smoking downtown, in parks and open space and in or around multifamily residential units. Wedel's initiative would basically overturn the multifamily portion of the law but still prohibit smoking in the other public places.
As for the many apartment and condo residents who asked for a smoking ban, Wedel's advice is they should work with their complexes to implement a smoke-free community.
He claims there was not enough outreach before the ordinance was passed.
Mayor Cindy Silva disagrees, saying there was nine months of outreach, citing the several public hearings, meetings and announcements in newspapers and in the city newsletter. Many people, especially those in multifamily housing, asked for such an ordinance because of secondhand smoke's health effects, she said.
"We did, after careful, thoughtful community input and outreach, take action that reflected the community's opinions and values," Silva said. "And we did it 4 to 1. I stand behind that."
As for plastic bags, Wedel says the council shouldn't dictate what stores use, and that substitutes would as bad or worse for the environment.
Silva argues that plastic bags are clearly a problem, with federal and state laws requiring cities to get the bags out of waterways or face fines.
Silva questions whether the initiative process is the best way to govern. "We elect representatives to make decisions on careful, thoughtful process, and we have the right to remove them from office if they don't reflect our beliefs," Silva said.
Wedel said the process allows voters to weigh in on highly controversial issues.
He needs to gather more than 4,000 signatures for each initiative and cannot start doing that until the city attorney gives the initiative a ballot title and summary, likely by mid-November. Wedel has 180 days after that to collect signatures. A special election could be called if he gathers signatures of 15 percent of registered Walnut Creek voters, but Wedel said he doesn't want the city to pay for such an election.
Wedel said he wants to discuss both issues at Tuesday's council meeting.
While Wedel is confident the initiatives will make it to the ballot, others on the council are not so sure.
"I believe that a significant majority of the residents of Walnut Creek are supportive of both the city's efforts to eliminate plastic bags from our community's waste stream, and our efforts to protect our residents' health and welfare through ... a strong secondhand-smoke ordinance," said Mayor Pro Tem Kristina Lawson.
For more information, go to http://www.su4wc.com/
Contact Elisabeth Nardi at 925-952-2617. Follow her at Twitter.com/enardi10.