After several hours of public testimony, the county's Integrated Waste Management Authority narrowly approved an ordinance intended to reduce consumer use of single-use plastic and paper bags.
On an 8-5 vote, the board passed the new rules that will ban many local retail stores from passing out free plastic carryout bags to customers and require stores to charge 10 cents for paper bags.
The issue sparked a surprising amount of controversy, drawing unprecedented crowds to the obscure governmental body tasked with overseeing waste management for the unincorporated areas of the county as well as each city. Members of the public spoke for more than 2 1/2 hours, with comments ranging from praise of the ordinance to condmenation of the board for infringing on civil liberties.
Some residents asked for stricter regulations, while others said the proposal should go out for a general vote. Board members were threatened with retribution at the polls, and officials from at least one city, Atascadero, have threatened to pull out of the IWMA over the issue. No one seems to yet know the ramifications of a city withdrawal.
Many opponents cited worries that reusable bags harbor dangerous bacteria, a point IWMA officials and many residents scoffed at as fear mongering.
Stephen Joseph of the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, which has sued other municipalities for enacting simliar ordinances, called the reusable bags "filthy." Joseph has told the IWMA he intends to sue SLO County for its ordinance, which would account for the second lawsuit ever for the organization.
One IWMA member, John Hamon of the Paso Robles City Council, called for a "super vote." Though it's never been used before, a super vote is an obscure failsafe in the IWMA rules that requires at least eight members, rather than a simple majority, to vote in favor of an item for it to pass. Despite the last-minute attempt to sway the vote the other way, the IWMA board had enough votes to enact the ordinance, causing the packed house to break into racous applause in the early evening hours of Jan. 11.
The rules of the ordinance are scheduled to go into effect Oct. 1. SLO County will join 15 other municipalities in the state that have enacted similar rules.
In the days before the final vote on San Luis Obispo County’s proposed ordinance to ban single-use shopping bags, the last-minute scramble wasn’t so much to solidify arguments or rally support. Instead, the biggest question on most minds was: What is the Environmental Safety Alliance, and who’s giving them money?
The short answer is that no one really knows anything about the group, and that’s probably the point. Three days before the County’s 13-member board of directors for the Integrated Waste Management Authority (IWMA) was set to make a final decision on the proposed ordinance, some residents found themselves on the receiving end of a robo-call “town hall meeting,” with two doctors claiming to be members of the Environmental Safety Alliance.
One of those people, Dr. Robert Johnson of Sacramento, holds a doctorate in musical history. He’s cited a study linking reusable bags to harmful bacteria as reason to be wary of any ordinance banning single-use bags. Johnson denied any coordination with the American Chemistry Council or other groups funded by plastic manufacturers that have popped up here and elsewhere to fight similar ordinances. The study he cites, Assessment of the Potential for Cross Contamination of Food Products by Reusable Shopping Bags, was funded by the American Chemistry Council.
Keep Bags Free SLO was perhaps most known as a local anti-bag-ban group. The Environmental Safety Alliance, however, is new, having formed just weeks after the IWMA tentatively voted in favor of a bag ban on Nov. 9, 2011. It’s so new, it has yet to receive an official nonprofit status or any recognition as a nonprofit corporation from the California Secretary of State. Yet the group, on its website, urged residents to contact their local legislators and listed four of the IWMA’s 13 members, most of whom could be considered swing votes in what was expected to be a close call come the Jan. 11 decision.
Johnson said he was the director of the Environmental Safety Alliance and declined to name other members on the group’s board of directors. He said the group’s focus on SLO County is coincidental, and he hasn’t coordinated with any local opponents of the proposed ordinance.
According to online records, the Environmental Safety Alliance website was registered by JC-Evans, Inc., a Sacramento-based media agency headed by Jeff Evans. Evans is a self-described “Feature Film Producer, certified Cinema Director and Line Producer,” and editor of the California Republican, according to his online bio. Neither Evans nor Scott MacLeod, vice president of development and marketing, returned numerous calls and texts seeking comment.
If the ordinance is passed, at least one group has threatened to sue. According to the IWMA, the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition has threatened litigation. The group has also sued Manhattan Beach and Marin County for their bag ordinances.
For the full version of this story, including results of the vote, go to newtimesslo.com.