LET THEM EAT KALE! ... The City Council is a particularly busy bunch this year, with agendas getting bulkier, development plans getting beefier, and new committees sprouting at City Hall like daffodils in the spring. This flurry of activity and the growing number of meetings has had at least one unintended consequence: not enough food in the budget to feed the council and staff. On Tuesday night, the council's Finance Committee was surprised to hear a proposal by City Manager James Keene to add $25,000 to the City Council budget, which includes $15,000 for "council meals." This proposal surprised Chair Pat Burt. "That just seems like a big jump, and I'm not eating more," Burt said. City Clerk Donna Grider attributed the rising food expenses to the growing number of council and committee meetings and to the fact that many of these now start earlier in the day and are thus more likely to include meals. At the same time, some council members have requested better food, Grider said. "We're finding that we don't have enough money in the budget," Grider told the committee. Keene noted that the food doesn't just feed the council members but also the staff that attends these meetings (an average meal, according to Grider, accommodates about 15 people). "I like to try to steer staff to eat here, rather than go out and submit a per diem that actually costs more," Keene said. Rather than simply swallow the added costs, the committee requested a fuller breakdown of the council's food budget. Burt said he doesn't want to just "rubberstamp" the $15,000 increase and asked Grider to come back with a more detailed breakdown of the council's food expenses. He also suggested that the city may be able to save money by eliminating food waste. Councilman Marc Berman also expressed an interest in learning more about the food budget. "Given the heightened sensitivity to everything we do, it's prudent for us to try to dig into the details of this, just to kind of make sure the public understands that we're being as cost-sensitive as we can," Berman said. Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd said she was "very grateful" for the meals. "It takes one edge off the logistics of trying to be almost everywhere sometimes as a council member," Shepherd said.
SNUFFED OUT ... Critics of the infamously thorough "Palo Alto process" will likely be shocked by the dizzying speed with which the city is proceeding to ban smoking at local parks. The idea to make small downtown parks smoke-free was floated by Mayor Greg Scharff during his February "State of the City" speech. It then swiftly spread to the council's Policy and Services Committee, which within minutes expanded the ban from the five proposed parks to every local park smaller than 5 acres. And this new idea can become law of the land as early as Monday night, when the full City Council considers the proposed ban. If approved, the new law would affect 24 parks and plazas, including prominent hubs such as City Hall's King Plaza, Heritage Park and Lytton Plaza, where smoking is particularly common. A new report from the Community Services Department lists several reasons for the new ban. Chief among these is public health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 443,000 deaths in the United States are attributable to tobacco annually, with 49,000 of these attributed to second-hand smoke. City officials have also been fielding complaints from downtown residents and businesses about smoking, particularly in urban spaces such as Lytton Plaza and Cogswell Plaza. These complaints, according to the new report, pertain to litter, fire safety, environmental quality or, in some cases, all of the above. Furthermore, the report states, numerous studies show that "an overwhelming majority of people want more restrictions on smoking in public places, parks and places or employment. ... For these reasons, more and more cities and counties in the United States and in California particularly, are adopting bans on smoking in outdoor public areas in an effort to reduce exposure to the known hazardous and unwanted effects of second-hand smoke."