With a month to the June 3 deadline for turning in petitions, a citizen initiative to repeal Homer’s plastic bag ban as of this week has collected more than half the 230 signatures needed to get the initiative on the October ballot.
Organizers need 25 percent of the ballots cast last October, said Justin Arnold, 27, the initiative organizer. As of Tuesday, Arnold, who is recovering from a broken collarbone, said sponsors had gathered about 150 signatures from registered Homer voters.
“Barring another major catastrophe in my life, we’re going to see it on the ballot this fall,” Arnold said.
If Arnold and other initiative sponsors collect enough signatures, voters would vote on a simple question: Shall Ordinance 12-36(a) be repealed?
Passed in a 4-2 vote on Aug. 27, and vetoed by former Mayor James Hornaday, the Homer City Council also overturned Hornaday’s veto in a 4-2 vote. The ban went into effect Jan. 1, but allows businesses to use up supplies of plastic bags purchased last year. The ordinance does not ban bags sold for household and business use, produce and meat bags, bags for bulk items and bags for dog poop disposal.
It only bans merchants from giving away disposable plastic bags 2.25 mils thick — a bag about one-third the thickness of a sheet of 20-pound weight copy paper — that are designed to carry customer purchases from the store. The bag industry often calls these “T-shirt” bags because of the resemblance to a shirt.
In council testimony, one opponent presented a petition signed by 320 people urging the council not to pass the bag ban. At a hearing on the veto vote, a standing-room only crowd showed up, with 29 people speaking for or against it. Former council member Beth Wythe, now Homer mayor, voted to uphold Hornaday’s veto, as did council member Barbara Howard. Council members Beau Burgess, David Lewis, Francie Roberts and Bryan Zak voted for the bag ban. Burgess, appointed to the council, was elected in October, and Roberts was re-elected, defeating a third candidate, James Dolma, for the two seats. Dolma, who also supported the bag ban, was later appointed to fill out the remainder of Wythe’s term.
Arnold describes himself as a Republican interested in libertarian views like those of Congressman Ron Paul. He said he started the initiative out of a philosophical belief that government should not over-regulate citizens.
“It’s not as much about the plastic bags to me, it’s about the idea that our government is becoming a nanny,” he said.
Bjorn Olson, a Homer environmentalist and filmmaker who made the film “Where in the Heck is Donlin?”, a film about the Dunlin mine in the Yukon-Kuskokwim River delta, said he supports the bag ban. He sees the issue from the opposite perspective.
“Not having to remember to bring a shopping bag with you and relying on the retailer to provide one is nanny behavior,” he said.
There are many arguments for and against a bag ban, Arnold said. He said he’s spent 80 hours researching the issue. Plastic bags are made from natural gas that would otherwise be flared off, he said. They’re more energy efficient to make. Paper bags, an alternative used at Safeway, use more water to make. Plastic bags can be recycled for purposes like plastic decking materials. They also can be repurposed as waste bags. He does concede that plastic bags can be a trash problem, one of the reasons council member Burgess cited for supporting the ban.
Olson said he considers plastic bags part of the bigger issue of plastic waste, particularly in oceans. Single-use plastic bags can take 1,000 years to degrade, he said.
“More than city ordinances banning single-use plastic bags needs to be done, but this is a good start,” he said. “It is a show of good will from the citizens that we value clean, healthy and vibrant marine environments that do much more than simply feed us.”
Olson mentioned a recent trip he had made to the Homer landfill where he saw a north wind blowing plastic bags over the bluff and into Kachemak Bay. Olson posted photos he took on his Facebook page.
Arnold said he’s seen photos of plastic bags blown by the wind at the Homer landfill.
“That is a dump problem,” he said. “We both know at the end of this year we’re going to be using a transfer station.”
Only Homer citizens can collect signatures on the initiative. Sponsors can sign out signature packets, and under city and state law, have to keep the packets in sight and observe people signing the initiative. About 10 business owners have asked to sponsor petitions and put them out to sign, but because they’re not city residents, they can’t do that, Arnold said. He is collecting signatures on a separate petition from nonresidents, and has about 300 signatures so far.
One of the initiative sponsors is Chris Story, a Homer Realtor who also has a radio show, “Alaska Matters.”
Like Arnold, Story cited philosophical reasons for wanting to repeal the bag ban.
“It’s your freedom to run your business,” Story said.
It didn’t seem right that the city could tell businesses it couldn’t give bags to shoppers while at the same time the city is giving away plastic bags in kiosks on the Spit Trail to scoop dog poop, he said.
“There’s no winning this argument other than say, ‘It feels good. I want to live in a Carmel (Calif.)-type community,’” Story said.
Personally, Story doesn’t like plastic bags, with his family using reusable canvas bags or cardboard boxes to carry groceries, he said.
Arnold said when he’s tried to collect signatures, people are generally supportive. In some areas he gets 100 percent agreement while in others it’s 10 percent. Arnold likes to talk about the issue with people.
“I’ve had people who are very green say, ‘You have a good point and let’s have it happen,’” he said. “I’ve changed opinions on people who are very open minded.”
A commercial fishermen who fishes for red salmon in Bristol Bay, Arnold said he hadn’t been involved in the bag ban issue when it came up before city council. He also does some construction work. He said for many people it didn’t become an issue until it took effect. Organizing the initiative has introduced him to politics.
“People like me don’t have time to run,” he said.
With two small businesses and putting in 20 hours of volunteer work, it’s hard for him to make the time to get interested in politics, he said.
“I don’t have the time, but I’m figuring out I have to find the time if I want a voice,” Arnold said.
Story said the initiative process serves to rein in government when people perceive it has been overly zealous.
“When they go too far with a power grab, the people check them,” Story said. “We’ll see. If you believe they’ve gone too far, you can hold them in check.”
Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.