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Santa Rosa may pull out of Sonoma County's plastic bag ban

Kayla Alberigi places groceries into plastic bags for a customer at G&G Supermarket in Santa Rosa in 2012. (Christopher Chung / PD)

Published: Sunday, September 8, 2013 at 3:04 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, September 9, 2013 at 11:54 a.m.

Santa Rosa may bow out of a countywide ban on single-use plastic bags, dooming a two-year effort to build support for the measure.

Instead of backing the ban proposed by the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency, city officials are recommending the City Council draft its own ordinance.

Doing so would allow the city “to retain local control and enforcement authority to better serve our community,” according to a report by Assistant City Manager Jennifer Phillips.

The countywide ban requires a unanimous vote of the 10 members of the Waste Management Agency. If Santa Rosa decides not to participate, it would kill the countywide ban.

The agency is a joint powers authority created in 1992 to increase recycling efforts. Sonoma County and its nine cities are all members.

Mayor Scott Bartley said the issue comes down to whether the city should allow other jurisdictions to have enforcement authority over businesses in the city.

“We don't want to give up the policing authority to the county,” Bartley said. “That's the bottom line.”

Some supporters of the ban were taken aback by the city's apparent change of heart after two years of support — albeit lukewarm — for the effort.

“I was just totally surprised to see that,” Cotati Councilwoman Susan Harvey said of the city report.

A countywide ban has been discussed for more than five years as a way to reduce litter and reliance on oil-based products. A regional approach is viewed by many as the best way to create consistent rules and protect smaller communities from lawsuits brought by the plastic bag manufacturers lobby.

Santa Rosa council members have in the past expressed support for the plan but also reservations about the loss of local control.

Councilwoman Julie Combs said she is a strong supporter of not using single-use plastic bags, which under the countywide ordinance are defined as less than 2.25 thousandths of an inch thick. Retailers would be required to 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.

Combs said she is in favor of consistent regulations across jurisdictions.

“I support a countywide uniform set of rules about it for the sake of clarity and convenience,” Combs said, “the way that we have a countywide building code.”

But she said she also favors local enforcement and has questions about any “unintended consequences” of signing on to the countywide ban.

If Santa Rosa backs out of the countywide ordinance, then other cities would be left to pass individually their own bans and the environmental studies connected to them, and would have to defend the local bans against any litigation, Harvey said.

This could lead to inconsistency among jurisdictions, she said. Some cities, particularly smaller ones, might not put in the effort to pass their own rules at all. A patchwork of various regulations could be confusing for businesses and consumers and lessen the impact of the ban, she said.

“I think that in the long run the right thing for our region is to do it consistently,” Harvey said.

City Attorney Caroline Fowler said the issue is whether the city should delegate its power to regulate within its jurisdiction to another governmental agency and give up its right to be able to change the ordinance.

She proposed a way to “carve out” Santa Rosa from the countywide ordinance, allowing other cities to still join, but that was rejected by agency staff. The JPA language requires a unanimous vote, Harvey said.

“It really is all or nothing,” she said.

The agency has expressed a willingness to allow Santa Rosa to enforce the ban locally if that's what it wants. For months the agency was under the impression this would satisfy the city, Harvey said.

Other jurisdictions that have passed such bans have found that enforcement is a “non-issue,” she said.

Harvey hopes that instead of pursuing its own ordinance, Santa Rosa will choose to keep the dialogue going in an effort to find a solution to its concerns.

“We thought we were where we needed to be with everyone, but if we're not there, we're not there,” she said.

The agency would likely be willing to postpone an upcoming vote on the ban while discussions with Santa Rosa continue, she said. It is scheduled to meet Sept. 18.

(You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @citybeater)

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