By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Local city and Sonoma County representatives sparred Wednesday over a recent snag in progress toward a countywide ban on single-use plastic bags.
The standoff is fueled by the county’s three largest cities, led by Santa Rosa, where some council members and city staff fear a countywide ordinance would force the city to relinquish regulatory powers within its borders.
Supporters of the regional effort, however, say that concern is overblown for a largely self-regulating measure. More than 80 cities and counties across the state have adopted plastic bag ordinances.
Without unanimous agreement among the county and all nine cities, the local effort, underway at the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency since early 2011, could be doomed.
“If Santa Rosa decides to pull out, it would impact all of our smaller cities … on being able to enact an ordinance,” Supervisor Shirlee Zane said. “That would be a shame. This county has been pretty progressive when it comes to environmental initiatives, and I feel that we’ve been behind the curve on this one.”
She was sitting across from representatives of Santa Rosa, Petaluma and Rohnert Park on Wednesday when she said they were allowing their city attorneys to drive public policy, their concerns “much ado about nothing.”
Assistant Santa Rosa City Manager Jennifer Phillips later fired back, saying the City Council had expressed concern about the countywide ordinance for two years and had “always been interested in” the option of pursuing its own regulation instead.
City officials last May qualified their move to join all other local governments in backing continued work on a countywide ordinance. The council said their support was contingent on getting more information about issues such as enforcement.
Phillips said Santa Rosa didn’t want to hold up the effort.
“I just want to be really clear that this was not in the 11th hour,” Phillips said. “It’s hard to make a decision before the decision point. The decision point came now.”
The back-and-forth comments came in a regular monthly meeting of the county Waste Management Agency at Santa Rosa City Hall.
Two months ago, the meeting was seen as the potential date for a final vote by the joint city-county body on the bag ordinance. It would ban carryout plastic bags at checkout lines countywide and add a 10-cent fee for each paper bag.
So far, five cities and the county have endorsed the regulation.
Santa Rosa’s objections resurfaced last week, when, after a vigorous debate, the council told staff to find a way to satisfy their concerns about regulatory independence. City and Waste Management Agency staff are set to meet Oct. 9.
The Petaluma and Rohnert Park city councils have yet to weigh in on the final proposal. But officials with both cities have voiced reservations.
Petaluma City Attorney Eric Danly said the joint powers agreement that governs the Waste Management Agency appears to provide for cases where individual cities don’t want to participate in countywide programs.
In Wednesday’s discussion, that option became known as a “carve out,” allowing the regional ordinance to proceed but making it applicable only in the cities that want it.
Janet Coleson, attorney for the Waste Management Agency, said no language in the current document authorizes such a move. But she said she would investigate whether a minor amendment to the agreement could make that possible.
“My city can do a zoning ordinance that only applies in this neighborhood and not there,” said Dan St. John, Petaluma’s public works and utilities director, speaking as the city’s representative. “I don’t know why we can’t do a bag ban that applies here and not there.”
Supporters said that piecemeal approach — one audience member called it the “Swiss cheese” option — would undermine the consistency of a regional effort now in its last stage. In addition to staff time expenditures, the Waste Management Agency spent about $38,000 on an environmental study for the proposal.
“I think we kind of defeat the whole purpose of why we (the Waste Management Agency) exist in the first place if after all this work one city says ‘Well, we’re going to go do our own thing,’” said Zane.
Shoppers also could be left in the lurch, facing a maze of different regulations, Cotati Councilwoman Susan Harvey said.
“They don’t want to go across borders and not know ‘Well, what do I have to do here, or what do I have to do there?’” said Harvey, the waste agency’s chairwoman. “This is not the biggest thing in the world. But if we can’t work on this together, then it says reams about what we really can accomplish.”
Cloverdale is the other city requesting more information or changes before it votes on the ordinance.
Waste agency staff said they would work to find a way forward before the agency’s Oct. 16 meeting.
“I really don’t feel like it’s falling to pieces yet,” said Patrick Carter, department analyst for the agency. “I feel like there are still questions out there. I haven’t given up hope that there are solutions. Ultimately that’s going to be decided by the decision makers, the elected officials.”
You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or firstname.lastname@example.org.