City Council Environment

Council Meetings not in Chambers? ADAgate

Council Chambers is too small for open council meeting. The presence of third hand smoke and other pollutants borne by attendees..Los Altos
Written by lalahpolitico

By now you’ve probably heard that on Nov. 12, 2019 Shaw HR consulting recommended that open council meetings remain in Los Altos Youth Center or in a third room that meets certain puzzling conditions.

In the past weeks, we’ve learned the problem is NOT the Chambers itself or the City Hall building itself. But it IS the use of small rooms for open council meetings, for example Neutra House and Chambers. We have learned that ‘off-gasing’ of construction materials and HVAC contamination are not problems at either Chambers or Los Altos Youth Center (LACY).  We’ve learned from Hazmat testing that both rooms have air quality which meets OSHA job standards.

But those air test results do not mean those locations are safe for everyone all of the time or even most of the time.  It seems the underlying problem is PEOPLE, too many of them at a time and some carrying irritants like smoking residues.


This article argues for eliminating or mitigating sources of thirdhand smoke in all our city meeting spaces to protect the health of us residents. It argues for a Los Altos ordinance regulating thirdhand smoke if gentle ‘shaming’ is ineffective. It argues that all our electeds need to ‘fully participate’ in person during council meeting discussions which cumulatively can be hours long. In contrast, some tiny fraction of members of the public who smoke should be incented/required to phone-in or video conference in their 3 minutes.  That makes sense. The opposite does not.


On Nov. 18, 2019, City staff summarized the Shaw HR consultant’s  “certain conditions” required for ADA accommodating open council meetings and provided the following information.

Excerpt City Staff Report.

City staff chart of possible rooms to hold open council meetings

The only City rooms large enough to meet the size criteria are LACY and the City gyms at the Los Altos School District junior highs. But the City omitted another column – Shaw HR also said that the a certain size room should have no more than a maximum number of attendees.

The only City rooms large enough to meet the size criteria are LACY and the City gyms at the Los Altos School District junior highs. But the City omitted a column. Shaw HR also said that a certain size room should have no more than a max number of attendees. Lalahpolitico: I have no idea why staff did not include that as a column.[/caption]

Let’s Review the Room Variables per Shaw HR


1)AREA = Minimum 3000 square foot square foot floor area (Lalah: volume better?)

2)ATTENDEES = Maximum number of attendees


Medical Symptoms =  f (Attendees /Area)

EXPLANATION: Medical Symptoms are directly related to Attendees. As the number of attendees in a specific area/volume increase, medical symptoms worsen.


3)DISTANCE = Minimum 20 feet from council member dais to speaker podium

4)CIRCULATION =Active Air Circulation (Lalah: adjustable outside air exchange better)

5)PURIFYING = Active Air Purifiers

6)COOLING = Climate Control for cooling


Medical Symptoms = f (Distance, Area, Area/Attendees, Circulation, Purifying, Cooling)

EXPLANATION: Medical Symptoms are ‘inversely related’ to the variables, subject to the stated minimums (3000 square feet area, 20 feet speaker distance). In other words, medical symptoms decline or disappear when the room is bigger, there are fewer attendees, the distance from public speakers is increased, air circulation and outside air exchange improves, active purifying is increased, and the room temperature is cooler (nothing lower than 68° F?).

Closer Look at the Variables


DISTANCE of the Public Speaker
from the Council Member Dais


You’ve probably ready enough Town Crier and Daily Post articles to infer the medical symptoms of one or more council members in this ADA instance have to do with breathing and asthma irritants, most likely smoking-related irritants. We now can infer the irritants are not being thrown off by the Chamber room or the LACY room, but by people.

Freddie Wheeler, a principal of and Measure C donor – who in Lalah’s opinion is in a position to know– has said in a public meeting that an irritant carrier is frequent council meeting visitor and reputed heavy smoker Roberta Phillips. Town Crier has quoted Wheeler’s public comment about Roberta Phillips.

Roberta Phillips just after she submits a speaker card to City Manager at the June 25 Study Session at LACY building. Note the distance from dais to speaker podium. There was very low attendence.  A regular council session soon followed.

Sometimes the Town Crier doesn’t have the space to remind readers of pertinent facts. It is public information that Roberta Phillips was Mayor Lynnette Lee Eng’s campaign manager.  And a good one! Lynette won.

The Town Crier and the Daily Post continue to receive story ideas and inside tips from Ms. Phillips, and somehow they often let it appear that she is just another citizen.

LosAltosPolitico is in a position to know Ms. Phillips continues to work closely with Eng in the role of what Lalahpolitico would call Consigliere. The role apparently involves being a homework helper: digesting and interpreting voluminous council packets, acting as a social media manager on, coordinating with aligned organizations, but also shaping and advising on policy positions and strategy. To my knowledge, current or prior Council Members typically have not needed a Consigliere or ‘kitchen cabinet’ to help fulfill their role and policy goals.

Lalahpolitico: The public elected Lynette Lee Eng as Council Member, not Roberta Phillips as ‘Vice-Council Member’. If someone is NOT going to be able to “fully participate” in Council meetings, better it should be the unelected persons in the room, not those who were elected.

When Lalah attends a council meeting Lalah wants to hear and SEE IN THE FLESH, the council members.  Often there is chitchat before, at breaks, and afterwards with our dear council members. So if some people who want to give public comment, but have very good reasons for not being there in the flesh – for example because they are an irritant carrier – then I say let’s have improved transparency services for remote public commenting.  The City should add phone-in and Skype type services to the shopping list for the up to $1.2 million  Audio-Visual upgrade project. ASAP.

Remote council meeting public commenting would not be just for Ms. Phillips alone. Though her case might be the pilot project.


Please clean up before coming to LA Council meetings. Chambers is a really small space. And even at LACY… your fumes are annoying and sometimes dangerous to the health of other citizens. Perfumed products, pet hair and dandruff, garden pollen and dust, and smoking and its clingy residues, etc. are unwanted at public meetings.

How to Reduce Air-borne Irritants at Public Meetings

1)A little gentle shaming?

There are numerous human activities that may attach allergy irritants to practitioners’ hair, skin, and clothes.

DIY gardening, heavily perfumed toiletries, pet ownership, smoking, DIY auto repair, DIY home renovation, etc.  In Los Altos most council visitors will shower, shampoo and put on laundered clothes before showing up at the City Council meeting. But not always.

You know how the saying goes, “If you see something, say something.”  How about adding “If you smell something, say something.”

You sit down near or next to someone, and your nose and perhaps eyes begins to perceive something is off.  You really could and SHOULD say to that person,

“Wow, you must have given your dog a bath wearing that sweater.”

“Or I see your jacket is very furry. Is that cat hair?”

“Oh my, do you know you smell like cigarettes, like an ashtray?”

“Did you just change the oil on your car or spill some gasoline on your shoes?”

“Your shirt is very dusty. Is that pollen or leaves?”

Then you can say, “Sorry, but I need to move away now.” If you are feeling bolder you could say, “You really should a) go sit in the corner, b) wait outside till your agenda item comes up, c) go home and watch this on Comcast or your browser on the City website Granicus page.”

Lalahpolitico: Speaking up is a kindness, not a meanness. Long ago…Someone commented on my perfume in an elevator. I stopped wearing perfume in public.  Long ago…When my son entered a classroom, a fellow student said he smelled like cigarettes, and could he please sit far away or just skip class. He soon stopped smoking.

gavel on a pile of ordinances

It would be so nice if social norms and a little polite correcting were all we needed these days. But sometimes regulation becomes necessary.

2) There ought to be a law. Regulate smoking some more. 

If gentle shaming is not enough, there ought to be a law. Let’s regulate.

Many of these human activities producing human irritants are already regulated. 1) There are leash laws and barking ordinances. 2) Los Altos does not allow cars to be up on blocks for DIY work in a driveway, but it’s ok in your garage. 3) Los Altos has gardening equipment noise ordinances – you must use electric equipment whether pro or DIY.

BUT SMOKING IS NOT AN ACTIVITY LIKE THE OTHERS. The City of Los Altos followed Federal and California law in banning smoking in enclosed places used by the public, whether privately owned or publicly owned. Most recently, Los Altos was a very early adopter of banning second-hand smoke. Smoking within 25 feet of a door entrance downtown and at civic building is banned.  Smokers have to go into the parking lots to grab a smoke, a toke. There is a $200 fine.

Most recently, Los Altos was a very early adopter of banning second-hand smoke. Let’s be leading-edge in banning third-hand smoke.- LosAltosPolitico

Crafting a City of Los Altos Ordinance regulating thirdhand smoke might not be easy.  And it might not be necessary if a little social shaming were effective.  And how would the ordinance be enforceable? The $200 fine for second-hand smoke can be written up by a police officer when she SEES you smoking within 25 feet of an entrance.  We take her word for it.  But even if the police officer stands next to a smoker who has been smoking all day long, she might not detect anything. However, a K9 unit could be used.  Dogs are trained as bomb material and marijuana sniffers, so it stands to reason they could be trained to sniff out third-hand smoke residues.

Third-hand smoke may be having deleterious health effects at City of Los Altos City Council meetings, especially when the rooms are too small

Read about 2nd and 3rd hand smoke 


‘Thirdhand’ Smoke Can Be Dangerous, Even If You Can … – Healthline


How ‘Thirdhand’ Smoke Can Be Dangerous, Even If You Can‘t See or Smell It. Recent research found smoke particles in an empty classroom. … But new research has found that avoiding first- and secondhand smoke might not be enough to completely eliminate your risk. May 23, 2018


The Cleveland Clinic links Thirdhand Smoke to cancer, DNA damage, and airborne carcinogens.


Thirdhand smoke is residual — or leftover — nicotine and other chemicals that remain on clothing and surfaces after someone smokes in the area. Dangerous residue from tobacco smoke sticks to carpets, walls and other surfaces after the smoke clears.


Miles Weinberger, MV, Director of Pediatric Allergy & Pulmonary Division, University of Iowa


Smoking and Asthma

Though many airborne pollutants can trigger an asthma attack, cigarette smoke is especially dangerous. “The single most important environmental factor that can make asthma worse is tobacco smoke,” says Miles Weinberger, MD, professor of pediatrics and director of the Pediatric Allergy & Pulmonary Division at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

Dr. Weinberger cites statistics that show a fivefold increase in hospitalizations among children who have asthma and live with smokers. Living in a house with a smoker — even a smoker who says that the smoking takes place outside of the home — can make it very difficult to control asthma, says Weinberger. Keep in mind that even traces of smoke on clothing can irritate the sensitive airways of someone with asthma and can trigger an asthma attack.

In fact, Weinberger has done research in Iowa City that shows that close to 90 percent of children with asthma who live in a nonsmoking household can achieve good control of their asthma. The proportion drops dramatically, to only 50 percent, for children who live in homes with smokers, he says.

Los Altos Council Chambers overflowing. Unhealthy breathing conditions the longer the meeting

Chambers is rated by the fire marshall for 65 persons. But there were many council meetings in recent years with many more attendees. Lalah counts 56 in this photo. But that’s only about 60% of the floor area. So ~100 attendees at that moment. Some significant CO2 building up here…?



Why should the number of attendees matter when accommodating the council member/s medical condition at council meetings?  Even if we can keep that small fraction of people carrying air borne irritants out of the room, why should the total number of people also matter?

The more people in a fixed size space, the higher the need for excellent room ventilation and airflow. People breathing are literally sucking the oxygen out of the room. And they are expelling CO2.

Lalahpolitico: I infer that high CO2 can be a stressor for asthma sufferers. And it is bad for all of us non-asthmatics as well.

Recall the advice from AAA to roll down the car windows occasionally during a really long car drive? And to turn off the AC 100% recycled air button?

Here is an article from the NYT – Is Conference Air Making You Dumber

NYT on CO2 levels and vertilation rates.


… the variations in [human] performance at different levels of ventilation suggest that a typically recommended minimum air flow for a conference room, which is 6 cubic feet per minute per person, might not be optimal, said Dr. Allen.

Without a specialized sensor, you can’t really know how much carbon dioxide is building up while you hunker down in a small room for a long meeting. It might be a generally good practice, when possible, to crack open a door (or a window when possible, and when outside air pollution isn’t a major concern). Letting some fresh air in might even help keep good ideas flowing during your meeting, and prevent the discussion from getting too stale.

Although indoor air quality is not as well monitored as the air outdoors, scientists and ventilation professionals have extensively monitored carbon dioxide indoors.

Higher CO2 levels — say, above 1,200 parts per million (ppm) — often indicate a low ventilation rate.

Table: Mayor Eng’s Council Meeting Lengths 2019. The Council Norm is 4 hours max.

Table of length of city council meetings 2018

Mayor Eng had 8 meetings over 4.5 hours long, including some record setting lengths of 6.0,  6.5 and 7.5  hours. She had 4 meetings of over 4hours but less than 4.5 hours. Lalahpolitico: Is she just hard working, hard charging? Or is this something else?

Meetings too long
Fire Marshall Occupancy too high

Most public rooms in city buildings or school buildings have a maximum occupancy set by the “fire marshall.”  Her concerns are 1)  enough exits for that max number of occupants, and 2) also several ingress points for firefighters. The fire marshall is not concerned about indoor CO2. Remember CO2 increases as the attendees increase.

Lalahpolitico suggests that the City adopt a policy, norms, or ordinance that limits the number of occupants/attendees at our meeting rooms  to a much smaller number, as has been suggested by Shaw HR.

City Council has norms that encourage wrapping up open council meetings by 11 pm– aka to being no more than 4 hours long.  The more hours, the more our exposure to irritants and accumulating CO2.  But that 4 hour norm has been regularly violated this year under Mayor Eng.  Besides the health effects, Lalahpolitico finds these ‘way too long’ council meetings to be antithetical to real government transparency and real citizen participation.

Table: Mayor Mordo’s Council Meeting Lengths 2018. The norm is 4 hours max.

Table of length of city council meetings 2018

Above is Mayor Mordo’s meeting record from 2018. Mayor Jean Mordo was able to keep meetings under 4 hours most of the time and under 5 hours all of the time. He had 3 meetings that  took close to 5 hours.  He had 3 meetings that exceeded 4 hours by a bit. WHY CARE?  Long meetings burn out city staff who are attending, make it hard to hire new staff (it’s easy to google a city’s council meeting hygiene/culture), and reduce the public’s interest in attendence.

As an added bonus read…

Answers to some of  Mayor Eng’s Burning Questions

Mayor Eng asked this more than once this fall:  Paraphrasing, “Why was having open council meetings in Chamber all last year and before that not a problem and is now?”

Lalahpolitico: Take a moment to think about it. Perhaps a council member/s developed a new medical condition. Perhaps an existing medical condition worsened.

Mayor Eng asked/remarked this fall [Nov.12] :  Paraphrasing, “We were all [council members, staff] just over in that building [city hall building]. I don’t understand what can be wrong with that building. “What can be wrong?

Lalahpolitico: This was a rhetorical question. And actually it was a misdirection of the public’s attention, perhaps as coached by Ms. Phillips. The answer is there is nothing ‘wrong’ with that building, with City Hall. The council meeting Eng is referring to is a CLOSED session held in the Redwood Room before the regular meeting held in LACY.  Redwood Room is a quite small room, but there are few attendees at closed sessions which may last 60 to 90 minutes.  Such sessions are limited to the council and staff. There are no members of the public (including Roberta Phillips) admitted. [Exception: Commission interviews. And I believe those are one person at a time and last at most 15 minutes each, not over 7 hours.]

Mayor Eng and Consigliere Phillips asked this fall: Paraphrasing, “What is wrong with having a council member permanently attend via a phone call or, if it can be managed, via video phone?”

Lalahpolitico: The answer is “What does ‘fully participating in being an elected official’ mean?” It means being there at council meetings to see, hear and, yes, smell your peers, the staff, and the citizens.  As Shaw HR explained, ” We do not put ADA people away. They are not to be removed from the environment. We do not make them less than those around them.”  Shaw also pointed out that per the Brown Act the sequestered person still has to admit persons to where she is sequestered.  That would mean it’s possible for habitual smokers to pile into the sequestration room which could be a very small one!

Los Altos City Council Meeting could be healthier places to be...

The upside of these ADA requests for accommodation — of Mayor Eng’s canary/s in the coal mine — is the public has heard some good ideas for making our council meeting places healthier for all residents.

Mayor Eng has asked
Maybe the ADA sufferer/s
is/are a Canary in the Coal Mine?

Mayor Eng asked this to indicate she felt Chambers and LACY should have air quality tests. Paraphrasing her,  “Maybe our constituents are also at risk!” And Shaw did have those tests performed. Yes, the upside to all this ADA business is the public now has heard a lot of good ideas for improving the healthiness, comfort, and technology of our meeting rooms.

Let’s fix the Chambers Coalmine! Director of Finance Sharif Etman says we have the money. And for LACY too.  Even if OPEN Council Meetings were to remain in LACY (while closed ones were to remain in the Redwood Room), The Chambers room could use health improvements for the sake of us constituents.  Planning Commission and other Commissions are continuing to meet there.

1)Reduce the maximum occupancy for Chambers to Shaw HR recommendations

2)Install high-grade HEPA filters in the HVAC as suggested by citizen Eric Steinle

3)Consider a separate HVAC or zone for Chambers to improve circulation and/or inject fresh air. Now the entire city hall building is on a single system.

4)Develop a capability for remote public commenting at city council meetings (not recommended for development project applicants!)

5) Perhaps do a study of citizen preferences for staying informed and participating in council meetings. How many unique individuals attended in person at least one council meetings in the last year? How many people watch live council on Comcast vs. Facebook streaming vs. Granicus streaming frequently or at all.  How many people view the recorded council meetings? Where would they prefer to view recorded council meetings?  Would Youtube or live streaming and archiving be feasible and well-received? Perhaps create an ad hoc citizens committee to investigate transparency and engagement technologies and best-practices.

headshot of 5 Los Altos Council members sitting in November 2019

By July there was more than 1 and less than 5 council members requesting ADA accommodation. By September, Shaw HR said two council members had verified a medical condition.  One or more had not.  Shaw let it slip that one was not expected to complete the paperwork. Hence, three IMHO.

 Lalahpolitico Bottomline

The council member/s ADA medical information information and specific identity is protected by HIPAA laws.

Roberta Phillips is a smoker. It is publicly available information.

In California over 90% of adults are non-smokers.  In Los Altos because of the high incomes and high educational level, it is probable that 99% of residents are non-smokers.  Yes, those estimated 300 Los Altos resident smokers are probably all boomers.  Lalah finds hard to defend their constitutional right to assembly in a small room where they may be harming the health of the rest of us. Let them send their public comments to our city council meetings via email or LIVE via remote communications technology.

If you eat organic, are concerned about 5g, trying to live healthy, you definitely want to keep your distance from sources of thirdhand smoke.

More Resources

Need to review the ADA timeline/situation? Try the Town Crier

LATC on Hazmat tests

LATC on Nov. 19 Meeting

LATC on Nov. 12 Meeting


About the author


Norma Schroder is an economics & market researcher by trade and ardent independent journalist, photographer and videographer by avocation. Enthralled by the growth of the tech industry over the decades, she became fascinated with the business of local politics only in the past several years.