A proposition on whether or not to prohibit retailers from giving out single-use plastic bags will once again be on the ballot.
The bag-ban vote came during Mayor Ken Castner’s first time running a Homer City Council meeting at its regular meeting Monday night, Oct. 22. As a new mayor but with a council the same as the past year, Castner on several occasions ran into opposition with the council, losing on 6-0 votes on matters he’d proposed.
In the bag ban, the council passed a substitute ordinance, 18-43(S), that lets voters decide at the October 2019 regular election if they want to reinstate prohibiting use of the thin plastic bags commonly given out at grocery stores.
The council in 2012 passed a ban, only to see it overturned by a vote put forth by citizen initiative. On Sept. 24, council member Caroline Venuti originally introduced an ordinance to ban bags outright by council action.
“I think it’s important that it actually goes back to the voters,” said council member Shelly Erickson. “The feedback I’ve gotten from many people is they’ve spoken on this. I think that they need to be given the opportunity to speak on it again.”
In a 5-1 vote, with council member Tom Stroozas voting no, the council approved substituting the by-council ordinance with the by-voter ordinance. In a 4-2 vote, with council member Heath Smith voting no with Stroozas, the council then approved that substitute ordinance.
According to the ordinances, the proposed ban would only prohibit sellers from providing “single-use plastic carryout bags” that are less than 2.25 mills thick, sometimes called “T-shirt bags.” That means Homer stores will still be able to use any plastic bag as long as it’s thicker than 2.25 mils. The ban also would not apply to the small bags inside a store used to carry produce and other small items or to bags used to collect dog poop. During Homer’s first bag ban, thicker plastic bags were offered for sale at Safeway.
Homer was the first city on the Kenai Peninsula to ban bags. Now, if it comes to fruition a second time, Homer would be the second peninsula city to enact a bag ban after Soldotna, whose new policy takes effect Nov. 1.
There have also been bans passed in several other Alaska cities and villages, including Anchorage, where all soft plastic bags are banned, and Wasilla, which only bans thin single-use bags under 2.25 mils.
In a second public hearing on the bag ban on Monday, most people spoke in favor of the ban, or at least of putting it to a citizen vote.
“I hope we all can agree to respect this incredible planet,” said Roberta Highland, speaking for the Kachemak Bay Conservation Society. “… By 2050 there will be more plastics by pound than fish if we don’t change our practices.”
Henry Reiske, an educator on recycling and marine debris at the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, urged the council not to delay and vote for a ban now.
“Getting rid of plastic bags will not be the solution, but it is the beginning,” he said.
“It’s just common sense this kind of poison should not be allowed anymore,” said John Sharp.
He noted that in Hawaii plastic could be found in sand.
“While the people in this room might not see that, the younger generation will,” he said.
Cassie Lawver said she uses reusable bags, but that she’s not for or against the ban.
“I think this should go to the voters,” she said. “… You put it on the ballot; we vote. That’s the way it is.”
Connor Schmidt urged the council “to start managing solutions and not managing problems.”
Smith, who voted against both substituting the ordinance and the council putting it to a vote by the people, said he felt it would be better for the people to bring the issue to the ballot through an initiative, as they did with the repeal. He said the council shouldn’t pass it alone.
“You frame your narrative; you help bring along your neighbor,” he said.
Council member Rachel Lord said she didn’t think the council shouldn’t revisit an issue just because the people had voted it down before.
“The idea that we have other information, that we cannot go back and look at something again without offending the voters, it feels hand tying,” she said.
However, Lord said she also felt that in the case of the bag ban, “I don’t think we can go forward without having a vote on this again.”
Council member Donna Aderhold spoke of how, on some issues, elected officials should take the lead.
“A lot of what government does is what individuals cannot do on their own, and that is to take care of the commons,” she said, referencing a concept put forth by ecologist Garret Hardin in his 1968 essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons.”
But as Lord and others had said, Aderhold agreed it should go to a vote.
In other council action, in a sometimes-testy exchange with the council, Castner disagreed with the members on two resolutions redefining the powers of the mayor pro tempore and setting a standard agenda. Before that, Castner lived up to his campaign promise to not break a tie vote, in this case selecting a new mayor pro tempore. In a secret ballot, the council split 3-3 between Smith and Aderhold. But because the council had to elect a mayor pro tempore, it agreed to decide the tie through a toss of a Homer Farmers Market coin. With City Clerk Melissa Jacobsen making the toss, Smith won.
Aderhold had been mayor pro tempore while former Mayor Bryan Zak was absent because of health issues. Frustrated with what she saw as a lack of clarity in the council operating manual defining the mayor pro tempore’s role, she introduced Resolution 18-082.
“This to me is a way to clarify what the mayor pro tempore can do,” she said.
When it came to the floor, Castner ruled it out of order.
“The council has no authority under state law to create a second mayor,” he said.
Castner objected to a change in the operating manual that defined the mayor pro tempore’s role as “adding agenda deadline and review, appointments to boards and commissions, Mayor’s proclamations and Recognitions.”
Offered the chance to overrule Castner’s decision, the council unified and in a 6-0 vote upheld an appeal of his decision.
In a second resolution, 18-083, Castner sought to delete “mayoral recognitions and proclamations” from the standard agenda. In running for office, Castner said he would not issue proclamations and recognitions.
“I cannot vote for this. The heart of the council will go out,” Venuti said. “It will be numbers and facts and data.”
On a motion from Aderhold, the council also in a 6-0 vote put that agenda item back in.
“I do not want to change our operating manual to fit someone’s campaign promise,” Lord said.
The resolution also included other housekeeping actions, such as updating conflict of interest and code of ethics sections. The council voted 6-0 to approve the resolution as amended.