Councilwoman, resident at odds over alleged cigarette odor

Daily Post Staff Writer

A bizarre situation at Los Altos City Council has pitted Councilwoman Jeannie Bruins’ asthma against the cigarette habit of one of her political rivals, regular council observer Roberta Phillips.

Bruins, who did not return a request for comment, missed most of the two-day annual council retreat last month, which was held in the council chambers at City Hall.

Bruins left partway through the first day, Jan. 18, when she started losing her voice and couldn’t breathe properly.

The next day, Bruins arrived at the meeting but said she was too sick to enter the building, so council rescheduled it for a larger and better-ventilated room, Hillview Community Center, on Jan. 27.

But Bruins didn’t attend that day either, citing medical reasons, and also didn’t participate over the phone.

Phillips, 72, said that after Bruins complained of her symptoms on Jan. 18, City Attorney Chris Diaz approached Phillips and asked her to leave the meeting.

“I said to him, straight out, ‘Hey Chris, under the constitution of the United States I have the right to speak at a meeting and under the Brown Act (the law requiring open meetings), I have the right to attend any meeting that I want to,’” Phillips said.

Diaz, who didn’t return a request for comment, immediately agreed and said Phillips had the right to attend the meeting, Phillips said.

Phillips said she was sitting as far away from Bruins as possible, in the back of the council chambers, and never smokes on the 18-acre Hillview campus where the council chambers are located. She’s been speaking at council meetings where Bruins has been on the dais for years.

Phillips also bathes and washes her hair before leaving the house to remove any smell of smoke, she said.

Bruins wore a mask

Councilwoman Neysa Fligor said it was obvious that Bruins was experiencing symptoms at the retreat. Her face was red and she could barely talk, and she wore a mask for a while, Fligor said.

Mayor Lynette Lee Eng said that she was surprised that Bruins not only didn’t attend the rescheduled retreat on Jan. 27, but also didn’t participate over the phone. Lee Eng saw Bruins at a Silicon Valley Leadership Group event at the LinkedIn campus in Mountain View two days before.

“I’m surprised this has become an issue,” Lee Eng said. “I think it’s unfortunate because (Phillips) has been a major participant at meetings.”

In skipping the Jan. 27 meeting, Bruins missed the chance to weigh in on the council’s priorities for 2019, but Councilwoman Anita Enander pointed out that Bruins would still get a chance to provide feedback on them when council approves them at an upcoming meeting.

Smoking ordinance

Phillips said she felt that Bruins was targeting her personally, and pointed out that Bruins spent four years serving on council next to Mayor Jean Mordo, a regular cigar smoker.
Phillips said she believes the city’s 11-month-old ban on smoking in almost all public places “absolutely, positively” was targeting her.

“They didn’t have a smoking problem in the first place,” Phillips said. “It had to do with Jeannie being vindictive toward me.”

Phillips noted that when that ordinance was nearly extended to include public areas of condominium and townhouse complexes, she joked to Mordo that she was going to stake out his condo and wait until she saw him light up a cigar, then call the police on him.

When Lee Eng and Bruins visited the Post’s office in 2016 for their candidate interviews, Phillips was in attendance as Lee Eng’s campaign manager.

Bruins said she didn’t want Phillips in the conference room, citing her sensitivity to cigarette smoke, so Phillips didn’t sit in on the interview.

“Jeannie’s been pretty angry at me because I was supportive of Measure C,” Phillips said, referring to the ballot measure that would have made it difficult for the council to sell or lease city-owned land. “Her anger comes out in really strange ways.”

Other explanations

Lee Eng, who also suffers asthma, said she sometimes has to use her inhaler when she sits in the audience of the council chambers to attend commission meetings. It’s possible that the chambers’ new carpet, or the glue used to affix it to the floor, could be an irritant, she said.

Ultimately, city officials are in the tough spot of trying to accommodate Bruins’ condition while maintaining meetings that are open to the public.

“I don’t feel that one has precedence over the other. We all have the right to be present at meetings,” Lee Eng said.


  1. Oh la la, to read of Bruins’ drama!
    Excellent reporting by the Daily Post! Now more of Los Altos residents are aware of Bruins’ penchant for drama, tolerance of “smoke odor” as long as it is from Mordo even if he is sitting next to her, vindictiveness and vendetta against Ms Phillips for that same “smoke odor” even if Ms Phillips is sitting far away.

    Was it not the same Bruins that lectured Mayor Lee Eng on how to ask soft questions of staff, not to conduct “an inquisition”?

    As for City Attorney Chris Diaz asking Ms Phillips to leave the meeting: how dare he do that? Ms Phillips would do well to file a complaint with the DA’s Office and/or the State Bar to put Diaz in his place.

    Feb 27 2018 Ms Phillips raised a concern at Council meeting re: a conflict of interest involving Ms Bruins. Specifically, Ms Bruins stood to benefit from the City amending its code concerning accessory structures and Ms Phillips asked she recuse herself. Guess what, it was Diaz who came up with a nonsensical explanation to allow Bruins to vote on that matter. Guess Diaz would do anything to serve Bruins’ interests, even if it is unlawful!

    Out out out with these rascals!

  2. This is very very concerning.

    Isn’t there a lawsuit against the City of Los Altos in Federal and State courts for staff’s acts of vindictive retaliation and harassment of a homeowner and resident? That is beside the discrimination and unequal treatment. The allegations also include the cover provided staff by some members of the City Council (including the former Mayor Mordo and Councilmember Jeannie Bruins mentioned in this article) and the City Attorney Chris Diaz.

    Here we read about that same Councilmember Bruins’ acts of vindictive retaliation and harassment of another homeowner and taxpayer. And here too we have City Attorney Diaz abetting and aiding Bruins’ unlawful demands and petty vendettas. I guess we should expect more lawsuits. Seems like until the staff and Councilmembers of Los Altos get penalized by the Courts of Law they are unlikely to learn what it is to be public servants and elected representatives of the people.

  3. I think Bruins is faking or exaggerating this illness in order to keep Phillips out of the room. There’s a simple way to determine if Bruins is telling the truth. Put Bruins in a blindfold and walk her to her chair in the council chambers. Then ask her if she smells Phillips. Make sure Phillips doesn’t come in the room. If she complains about Phillips cigarette odor, and Phillips has never walked into the room, then we know she’s faking it.

  4. Just got alerted to all this…

    > Bruins is faking or exaggerating this illness in order to keep Phillips out

    No doubt about that and the evidence, as reported, speaks for itself. After all Bruins was able to sit next to–for several hours at a time–a smoker Jean Mordo for all those Council meetings.

    Ms Bruins’ purported allergy seems to be triggered only when it comes to those who disagree with her politically. It doesn’t seem to matter when it comes to those who agree with her politically (e.g. Mordo). Ergo, the “smoke odor” allergy is mere pretext to harass, retaliate against, hound a taxpayer, resident, and political opponent.

    Isn’t the City already embroiled in a lawsuit involving their violation of a resident’s constitutional rights, specifically the First Amendment? And here they are once again engaging in clear violations of another resident’s right to free speech! When the City Attorney serves to carry out those unlawful demands and actions it is as bad as it can get.

    Ms Bruins and those on Council who voted with her on ordinances that served her personal vendettas and vindictiveness toward taxpayers and residents: have you no shame?

  5. >trying to accommodate Bruins’ condition while maintaining meetings that
    > are open to the public.

    The hive matters more than the bee.

    In this instance, this is the bee’s (i.e., Bruins’) problem. She has many options to deal with it: medicate herself for her purported allergy to be present at Council meetings, avail the easy and practical option to call in, etc. Some of those are not available to and also impractical for residents.

    The public CANNOT blocked from or asked to leave meetings of public officials. Bruins’ and Diaz’s attempts and desires in that regard were unlawful. They knew, should have known, or were reckless not to know their actions were violations of constitutionally provided rights and also violations of State law (Brown Act). That explains why they are dodging the reporter’s queries and not returning requests to comment/respond.

    It is indeed alarming that a Council member makes unlawful demands that are punitive, vindictive, targeted toward a (political opponent…and the City Attorney then executes those demands…both using their positions of authority…only to be reminded of the law by a taxpaying homeowner and resident. No wonder we have other reported instances of City staff, no doubt emulating what they see from Council members and the City attorney, violating the law (check ongoing Fed and State litigation vs the City), taking it into their own hands (e.g. Jordan arbitrarily unilaterally deciding to grant himself and his staff alternate Fridays off), and harassing and retaliating against anyone that challenges them.

    Going forward how can we trust these individuals in their positions of power and responsibility going forward knowing they are capable of such blatant violations? They needed to be condemned across the board, asked to leave if they don’t voluntarily resign thereby sparing us their participation in any City matter.

    Kudos indeed to the reporter and the Post for covering this. Thank you.

    • ADA says otherwise. Asthma is a real disability. It’s not about “smell” but smells can mark the irritant in the air supply. For the city to attorney to point out the accommodation need for the person with the disability to a person obviously carrying the irritant about her person is not illegal. Why would it be?

      • > For the city attorney to point out the accommodation

        Per the report the city attorney did not merely “point out” any such thing.
        He asked a member of the public to LEAVE a meeting. That is a blatant, brazen violation of Federal and State Law, constitutional rights and the Brown Act. You’d think an attorney would know that…but in Los Altos, a City Attorney seems to be more beholden to carrying out a Council member’s unlawful demands or covering up for staff than respecting the law.

        Let’s not misrepresent or understate what the attorney did or the Council member demanded. That is a transparent ploy to downplay the reported illegal actions.

        • Nope. She didn’t leave the meeting. He agreed she didn’t have to leave the meeting. So what he did was ask her to CONSIDER leaving the meeting. He didn’t say “Please get out of here.” That is fake news to say that she was asked to leave the meeting when she was only asked to consider so doing. It’s a common colloquialism to say “ask to leave” as a way of saying “kick out” but that’s not what happened in this case.

          • You claim: “So what he did was ask her to CONSIDER leaving the meeting” whereas the article unambiguously makes clear: “City Attorney Chris Diaz approached Phillips and asked her to leave the meeting.”

            Perhaps you know more or were privy to the conversation…in which case, tell us more! Educate us on “ask to leave”, “CONSIDER leaving”.
            Or you are trying to distract, obfuscate as seems the norm for agents of this City of Los altos.

            As far as the law goes, all of them were unlawful and simply unconscionable especially coming from an attorney and/or a City Council member.

            • Because she did not leave, and as an officer of the city government, the city attorney could have called the Police if he did in fact ask her to leave.

              • > the city attorney could have called the Police

                If their demand had basis in the law why then didn’t the attorney and/or council member engage the PD?

                He didn’t because he couldn’t…that would have only exposed the attorney’s and Council member’s unlawful demand or, worse, enmeshed the Police in what was unlawful in the first place. Surely that “officer of the city govt” knew, should have known, or was reckless not to know what he was doing was unlawful and unconscionable.

                Ms Phillips would do well to file complaints with the State Bar and follow up to insure the Los Altos City attorney is rendered incapable of serving as “an officer” of any city govt going forward. Also, a complaint registered with the DA’s Office and/or the State AG’s Office would take care of the rat’s nest that’s the alliance between Ms Bruins, Mr Diaz, and their cohorts such as “David” and expose Ms Bruins’ purported “allergy” for what it is: a naked attempt to retaliate against a resident and tax paying homeowner that–lawfully–disagrees politically with Ms Bruins.

                • It wasn’t a demand. It was a request to consider the health needs of someone with a disability. The request was rejected. There was no demand to leave at any time. That’s what the FAKE NEWS take on this is, that it was a demand. But as you say, it clearly wasn’t a demand to leave. Instead of saying the half-truth that she was asked to leave, it needs to be realized that the request to entertain the idea of leaving is not the same as being kicked out or even the same as an attempt to kick out.

      • Jan 2019 Ms Bruins lectures incoming Mayor Eng on how to conduct herself as a Mayor, not ask hard questions of staff, not conduct “an inquisition”. In other words she was providing cover and protection for staff.

        Feb 2019 Ms Bruins engages City Attorney Chris Diaz to get rid of a pesky homeowner and taxpayer from attendance at a public meeting. The pretext? Ms Bruins’ purported allergy. Said homeowner/taxpayer resists citing Federal and State protections.

        In the reporting that follows the only apologists for Ms Bruins and Mr Diaz appear to be City Hall, current or former, staff with a vested interest in providing cover for Ms Bruins and Mr Diaz. After all a bruised or exposed Bruins and/or Diaz would result in the lack of protection and cover staff thus far enjoyed. Quid Pro Quo. You scratched my back, my turn now…

        Residents in 2018 filed complaints with City Council re: lies and deceit and misrepresentations by City staff, former Mayor Mordo, and City Attorney Diaz that were clearly working in concert to cover up and protect each other from the consequences of their unlawful actions.

        Los Altos City Council, are you listening? When can we see an independent investigation and a public discussion, as requested by residents the past year, in these shenanigans?

  6. Good reporting by the Post. Residents need to hear about this type of illegal conduct by Council Member and City Attorney.

    With any sense at all, you wouldn’t ask a person to leave a public meeting just because you don’t like how they smell. That’s not even close to being justified.

    Hopefully someone will file a complaint to the State Bar. There has already been one complaint filed because of Attorney’s misrepresentation of State Laws to Council and Public regarding Building Codes. Now this!

  7. >the city’s 11-month-old ban on smoking in almost all public places
    >“absolutely, positively” was targeting her. “They didn’t have a smoking >problem in the first place,” Phillips said. “It had to do with Jeannie being
    >vindictive toward me.”

    WOW! So if someone in the City Council doesn’t like you they–out of the blue and without any basis–introduce new laws or amend existing ones to target and affect you! And if you challenge them you are then subject to even more retaliation and harassment, asked by no less than the City Attorney (who should know better) to leave public meetings. What is City Council doing to terminate the City Attorney? Where is the transparency and open governance that would prevent such abuses of office by Council members?

    Just so it is clear: there have been prior reported instances of the City (including staff) targeting, retaliating residents who challenged their abuse of office and unlawful actions. In those instances as well City Council amended the law to cover up those unlawful actions and also to target and retaliate against those that complained.

    Ms Phillips’ experience, shocking as it is, serves to confirm Los Altos City Council and City Hall are nurturing, hospitable environments for City agents to engage in vendettas, retaliation, harassment and worse. The City Attorney ought to go and take Ms Bruins along, setting the stage for a full clean up at City Hall.

  8. What I can add to this is that one time I ventured to attend a city council meeting. They were exhibiting some plans before the meeting and I wanted to see them. I did not know Robert Phillips before this and had never seen her. While in the viewing area I came within 6 feet of a woman who reeked of Cigarettes. I later learned that this was Roberta Phillips. Anyone can smell this. I have no doubt that she does bathe and put on clean clothes before going out to meetings. However, I have done research and the truth is that like Heroin, you can smell it in the body excretions (sweat) of a person as it leaches through the blood stream.

    I hate the fact that all these comments assume that this is just a matter of odor. The fact is that what permeates the sweat includes carcinogens of various sorts which react with nitrogen oxide in the air to become more dangerous. This is part of what is know as Third Hand Smoke. It’s a real thing. It’s not just an unpleasant odor.

    Ms. Bruins is the canary in the coal mine. Everyone else in that room is endangered by the presence of a very heavy smoker. People should be asking what kind of ventilation system does that council chamber have. How many times per hour is there a complete air exchange? It’s likely that this is old inadequate design. The ventilation system should be upgraded ASAP.

  9. What I can add to this is that one time I ventured to a City Council meeting. I met someone who said they were there for the first time as well. During a break they complained to me of a woman 6 feet away “reeked of Cigarettes.” I could smell no such thing and told them their complaint was without basis. I then asked them if they noticed if everybody around this complainant was shifting away to occupy seats elsewhere. I said I was going to sit far away too as their perfume was overwhelming and masked the unmistakable odor of their not having bathed for weeks. I doubt they got the message, as strong as it was, as they continue to complain about someone else “reeking of cigarettes” when they should be paying attention to their own hygiene and odors. I now understand that person posted as Los Altos Resident above.

    That said, it’s a good idea to upgrade the vent system.

  10. >Everyone else in that room is endangered

    Ok, if that’s surely the other Council members, residents, staff would be have complained to register their concerns of being “endangered”. However the fact is: NONE of them did. So much for your hyperbole about “endangered…”

    >Ms. Bruins is the canary in the coal mine.
    I agree she’s the canary in the coal mine…in the sense that her actions have only exposed the degree of vendetta, vindictiveness, retaliation, harassment and abuse of office that is the norm at Los Altos City Hall and Council. Quite a canary at that!

    The rest of Los Altos City Council and residents ought to take this matter seriously and bring an end to these shenanigans. Expose these bad actors and bring in the transparency required of elected representatives of the people and public servants

    • The other city council members are simply trying to be polite to Roberta Phillips. Anyone who has met her knows that you can smell cigarette smoke type odors around her. The misconception is that this would only occur without good hygiene. So it’s considered insulting to acknowledge the odor. But the hygiene is not the cause in the case of a very heavy smoker who is nicotine-dependent. Smokers damage their own bodies and one of the effects is this smell issue, especially if the usage habit is extreme. The way that Bruins is a canary is because her asthma renders her reaction more involuntary and obvious. A relatively small amount of the off-gas result can cause her to have breathing problems. But others are affected even if they can still breathe. Definitely upgrade the ventilation.

      • >you can smell cigarette smoke type odors around her.

        The way one can smell nasty perfumes around Jeannie Bruins…and foul smelling cigar odors around Jean Mordo…funny these “odors” only matter for Ms Bruins when it comes to Ms Phillips. Sure Ms Phillips political stances are not the cause for Bruins’ “allergy”?

        >Anyone who has met her knows that you can smell cigarette smoke type
        >odors around her.

        Funny again…Ms Bruins didn’t meet Ms Phillips for such odors to register on her…the article makes clear the two were separated by quite some distance…and such distance is far greater than what Bruins had when next to Mordo on the dais. Once again…is this not a transparently clear case of a Council member, on a pretext, using the City attorney in an attempt to get rid of a political opponent and the attorney complying with such an unlawful demand?

        > Bruins is a canary is because her asthma renders her reaction
        >more involuntary and obvious.

        Los Altos residents should remember to cite their “involuntary and obvious asthmatic reaction” when faced with unlawful demands and corrupt actions by Council members and/or staff.

        Kudos go out to Ms Phillips for asserting her rights in the face of such brazen provocations and demands. More power to you!

  11. Ms Bruins is fond of taking taxpayer funded or lobbyist funded junkets to Europe. Europeans smoke like chimneys. How does she deal with it there?

    • Every pollutant or lung irritant is not the same. Also, the volume is a factor. How illogical do you want to be? I doubt Bruins spends much time in Europe. What’s the evidence that she is exposed to smoke there? Some sort of stereotype? There are people who smoke in France, and so therefor every room in France is contaminanted. In the U.S. a lot of people smoke too, but in the hotels there are no-smoking rooms. People are exposed to third hand smoke effects from residue even in some of the non smoking rooms, but can you imagine what it would be like in the smoking rooms? A better hotel will actually have smoke free rooms. What evidence do you have that this is not the case in Europe? What is the recourse if one checks into a hotel and finds the room contaminated by previous smoking? Why, one switches rooms or hotels. The ban on smoking in public places, including bars and restaurants, is now nationwide in Germany. The health harms of third hand smoke are recognized in Europe even as they are in the United States.

  12. >Every pollutant or lung irritant is not the same.

    Sure, sure, sure…only that that emanates from Ms Phillips matters to Ms Bruins, right? Not what reeks out of Mr Mordo. Or her own perfumes. Or those of the many others in the audience at Council meetings or in the City. Just that specific whatever from Ms Phillips..which is mere pretext for amending the ordinances to target her, demand she leave a public meeting, and so on.

    What next? you are going to defend someone’s “allergy” to skin color? their accent?

    >How illogical do you want to be?
    Tell us, how illogical do YOU want to be in defending and explaining this elaborate “third hand smoke” theory to cover what is rank retaliation, harassment of a political opponent by a Council member and a City attorney operating under cover of authority?

  13. Bruins behavior is embarrassing to the residents of Los Altos. I hope she doesn’t run again to spare her from having to smell her constituents.

    • Her term limit is up. She couldn’t run again if she wanted to. She was first elected in 2012, and it wasn’t to a life tenure in the office. She was reelected in 2016. She’s done a great job.

  14. I’ve talked to Roberta many times and never noticed any odor. I think the people posting above who say they’ve smelled smoke on her are just Jeannie’s sock puppets. Jeannie is weak and she wants to avoid somebody who would challenge her ideas.

  15. Apparently perfume odors prompt Subaru cars to malfunction so they are recalling a million+ cars. In the real world, people and corporations have to act to avert foreseeable consequences.

    Since Jeannie Bruins too malfunctions owing to odors doesn’t it make sense to recall her too (unless she opts to act with integrity and resign)? Maybe no as in Los Altos City Hall and Council there seem to be no consequences to bad actors and their bad actions.

  16. I have been in many a Los Altos City Council meeting and can attest to the fact that Roberta’s cigarette use can be smelled from a distance.

  17. I have been in many a Los Altos City Council meeting and can attest to the fact that the Cynthia’s body odor (and noxious perfumes to mask it) can be smelled from a distance.

    I can also attest Cynthia is actively involved in City matters and always aligned with Jeannie Bruins (and former mayor Mordo). It is well established by now they are on the other side of the political divide from Roberta, and are using “odor” as a way to settle political scores. Shame on them!

  18. I speak on behalf of the League of Women Voters to express my deep concern over the besmirching of Roberta Phillips by a coterie of her political opponents.

    We are outraged some are attempting to settle political scores by demanding the removal of their opponents from participation in forums and meetings that, per law, are open to the public. To witness the City Attorney engaging to execute these unlawful demands and some residents continuing the smear on Ms Phillips is unconscionable and unacceptable. The League of Women Voters recommends all voters remember this the next time we visit the ballot box. And meanwhile, let’s show up at City Council meetings to demand transparency and accountability from the City.

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