By many measures, Santa Monica is one of the greenest cities in America. It has a strong sustainable city program that includes ambitious environmental, economic and quality of life goals and objectives. It has tough and effective water quality and water supply programs. Its alternative fuels fleet policy has generally been excellent. And city leaders have developed and approved a very tough ordinance that banned single use polystyrene packaging. And for the last three years, they have talked about banning plastic bags. And talked. And talked.
The issue hits home for me in a number of ways. Banning plastic bags in California is one of Heal the Bay’s highest priorities. Also, as the three-year co-president of the Heal the Bay-Surfrider Club at Santa Monica High School, my son Zack has worked with teacher Ben Kay and his fellow students to ban plastic bags in the city since his freshman year. Zack is a senior now. While the city of Santa Monica has studied the issue to death, residents and visitors have disposed of at least 200 million plastic bags, and far too many of them have ended up in Santa Monica Bay and the Pacific beyond.
Some of the city’s delays have been legitimate. When the American Chemistry Council sued the city of Manhattan Beach over its bag ban ordinance, the city started getting cold feet. L.A. Superior Court Judge Yaffe’s questionable ruling requiring an EIR for a local ordinance slowed the process even more. To that end, Santa Monica showed leadership and provided the majority of the funding for the Master Environmental Assessment that became the cornerstone of bag-ban EIRs throughout the state.
Santa Monica completed a full-blown EIR at considerable expense as well as a nexus study to determine the proper amount of a proposed paper bag fee. The city conducted the environmental review process very methodically, perhaps in the hope that Assemblymember Brownley’s bill to ban bags statewide, AB 1998, would get approved by the state senate and be signed into law. We know how that story ended.
After all of this caution, the city was finally ready to go – Oct. 12 was going to be the big day for the first reading of the ordinance. The far-reaching ordinance would ban plastic bags and require a 20-cent fee on paper bags. When it came to the question of paper vs. plastic, Santa Monica was planning to loudly answer “Neither!”
Based on the nexus study, approximately 16.4 cents of the fee would be returned to the retailers and only 3.4 cents per bag would go back to the city to effectively implement and enforce the program. Then, befitting society’s growing climate of fear, Santa Monica postponed the ordinance hearing from Oct. 12 to Oct. 26.
The city decided that the horror of Prop. 26, and the potential elimination of local and state government’s critical ability to increase fees to provide critical services like environmental regulation and enforcement, was enough to move the bag ban forward as an emergency measure.
The thought was to pass the measure and the paper bag fee provision before the Nov. 2 election to make sure that the ordinance would stand in its entirety. Then, a week later, the city decided that the emergency approval was a bad idea because it could have potentially weakened the ordinance in court.
So the fear of passage of Prop. 26 and the fear of litigation from the ACC led to postponement of the ordinance hearing yet again. A new hearing date has not been scheduled. Meanwhile, local beaches and communities and marine life in the Pacific will continue to bear the brunt of yet another delay.
The reality is that government is almost afraid to lead on far too many issues. Promises are easy to make, but often very difficult to keep. Campaign season reminds us of this fact.
The public needs to give city leaders the strong encouragement they need to move forward on the long-promised plastic bag ban. Santa Monica should have approved the measure on first reading on Oct. 26.
If Prop. 26 passes, then the ordinance could be modified to better reflect a similar approach to AB 1998 – ban single use plastic AND paper bags, but allow retailers to charge a fee of at least a dime for paper bags. This approach complies with any Prop . 26 fee ban, because the paper bags would be sold to consumers and none of the revenue would go to government. This isn’t very tough to figure out. It just takes leadership.
Despite the fact that Santa Monica has not rescheduled yet another date for the bag ban ordinance, I strongly urge you to make your voice heard. Write a councilmember. March with Samohi students to ban plastic bags on Oct. 26, or show up to speak at public comment at the council hearing that evening. Santa Monica’s Council needs to hear from the public that even one more day of platic bags is one day too many.