By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The ban on single-use plastic bags long sought by Sonoma County environmentalists is unlikely to materialize as a single countywide law but rather as a patchwork of similar, if not identical, local ordinances.
The board of the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency, bowing to pressure from cities including Santa Rosa, recently approved two changes to its charter that set the stage for cities to opt out of a future bag ban.
The decision, if ratified in coming months by the nine cities and the county that are members of the agency, breaks the impasse that arose over whether cities could pass and enforce their own bans.
“If this is the way it needs to happen in order for us to enact something countywide, then that’s what we have to do,” said Cotati City Councilwoman Susan Harvey, co-chairwoman of the board. “You have to compromise sometimes.”
Harvey said the board shifted its position once it became “obvious that what we had was not going anywhere.”
A countywide ban has been discussed for more than five years as a way to reduce litter and reliance on oil-based products. In addition to staff time expenditures, the Waste Management Agency spent about $38,000 on an environmental study for the proposal.
Staff at the agency, which was created in 1992 to increase and coordinate recycling efforts, argued that a countywide ban would create the kind of consistent rules that consumers and retailers want, making the ban more effective.
Some city attorneys, however, questioned whether the agency’s joint powers authority gave it the power to pass such a ban. They also argued that individual cities should be allowed to opt out if they preferred to pass their own laws.
Since the countywide ban needed to be unanimous to be implemented, opposition from even one city would have killed the effort.
Third District Supervisor Shirlee Zane said she was pleased a compromise was reached that allowed the ordinance to move forward.
“The bottom line for me is the people want this done,” Zane said, noting that more than 80 cities and counties across the state have adopted plastic-bag ordinances. “It’s the right thing to do. It’s not rocket science.”
The board agreed to amend the joint operating agreement to explicitly give the agency the authority to pass ordinances. It also added language clarifying that individual cities “may elect to participate in any or all” of the “non-core programs” that go beyond the agency’s core mission of recycling household hazardous waste, wood waste and yard waste, providing education and reporting to the state.
“What it really does is it allows those members that want to take part in a regional ordinance to do so, with all the savings to cost and effort that involves and all the regional consistency that provides, while allowing the members that have concerns about their sovereignty to let the ordinance move forward,” said Henry Mikus, the agency’s executive director.
Smaller cities, in particular, didn’t want to see the countywide ban scuttled because of the time and energy and money they would have had to spend passing their own ordinances.
Several cities are taking up the proposed changes in the next two weeks. Santa Rosa is scheduled to consider it in early December. Implementation could come as early as January, Mikus said.
He said he had no indication that any cities have concerns about the proposed changes.
“Pretty much everybody has taken some positive steps,” Mikus said.
Harvey said she was comfortable with the changes after Santa Rosa pledged that any ordinance it passed would likely be identical to the one that has been studied and drafted for countywide implementation.
It would affect a wide range of outlets, including grocery, clothing, hardware and drug stores, electronics vendors and convenience and liquor stores.
Single-use bags would be defined as those less than 2.25-thousandths of an inch thick. Retailers would be required to instead provide paper bags of at least 40 percent recycled content, charging customers 10 cents per bag. Fines could be levied against businesses that don’t comply, though few expect that to be necessary.
The ban would not include bags to hold meat, vegetables or prescriptions, or apply to restaurants or stand-alone delicatessens, thrift stores or other nonprofit charitable operations.
While cities would be able to pass their own versions of the ban, Harvey said she’s confident the message of consistency has been heard. The overwhelming message from the business community and consumers was that they didn’t want to comply with different rules for different communities, Harvey said.
“They could enact something different. That is possible. We’re hoping they don’t,” she said.
Others have expressed concern that by allowing local ordinances, future council could undo or weaken their bans under pressure from business groups.
Santa Rosa Mayor Scott Bartley said he is pleased to see that the board found a way to address the City Council’s concerns. He said he expects the city will ultimately pass an ordinance that “mirrors what’s adopted” in other communities, he said.
If that happens, Zane said she’d be satisfied with what would effectively be a countywide ban.
“Hopefully, it will be a seamless program and we dramatically reduce our use and waste of plastic bags,” she said.
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @citybeater.