Freeport residents will have their say – probably in June or November 2016 – in a non-binding vote on whether the town should charge a fee for single-use plastic bags.

The Town Council could then vote whether to approve the sentiments of the voters, according to the structure of the town charter,

The council on Oct. 20 voted 4-2 to send the issue to a public vote, rather than decide on its own. The town’s Ordinance Committee – a three-member Town Council subcommittee – recommended earlier this month to put the recommendation of a fee on plastic and paper bags to a non-binding vote. A divided Town Council went with the recommendation. Bill Rixon and Jim Hendricks cast dissenting votes. Had Councilor Kristina Egan been present on Oct. 20, the vote would have been 4-3.

Council Chairwoman Melanie Sachs, arguing for the majority, said that the council has decided on an “enormous amount” of important issues in the past three years, and that there has been “no punting.” Rixon said he has issues with this particular public vote, as it relates to the town charter.

“The charter says only the Town Council can enact an ordinance,” he said Friday. “That’s why they (the council) changed it to a non-binding vote. Before that it was a referendum. Not until discussion (Oct. 20) did they change the wording to a non-binding vote. Citizens must circulate a petition for a referendum, according to the charter.”

Rixon argued before the Town Council that there would be no opportunity to send the single-use bag ordinance to a public hearing prior to the vote.

“Townspeople have not had a chance to comment on sending this to referendum, in an announced and advertised public hearing,” Rixon said. “I do not favor sending this to a referendum.”

The Ordinance Committee – composed of councilors Sarah Tracy, Scott Gleeson and Andy Wellen – studied a fee or ban on plastic and paper bags, used mostly by supermarkets, for 11?2 years. Meredith Broderick and Elly Bengtsson, 2014 Freeport High School graduates, had proposed a ban on the plastic bags to the Town Council in the spring of that year, and the council passed it to the Ordinance Committee. From there, the committee expanded the conversation to include paper bags, and decided to propose a fee on both, rather than an outright ban.

In making its recommendation to the council on Oct. 13, Committee Chairwoman Sarah Tracy said this is an appropriate matter for the public to decide, but she would be comfortable with a Town Council decision.

The Recycling & Solid Waste Committee presented a detailed report last spring to the Ordinance Committee, suggesting a ban on plastic bags. Josh Olins, chairman of the Recycling & Solid Waste Committee, asked the council on Oct. 20 to decide the matter on its own. Olins, Rixon and others said they were concerned that the plastic-bag industry would lobby against the proposed ordinance to Freeport residents.

Olins told the council that Freeport is touted as a national and state leader in environmental matters, naming Solarize Freeport and a ban on Styrofoam products as examples.

“We’d like to see this ordinance you’re bringing forward moved as quickly as possible, but to remove the referendum part,” Olins said.

But Tracy and Gleeson spoke for a public vote.

Tracy said the action would impose a fee on residents, and that the matter is outside of normal Town Council function.

“It’s worth giving people the opportunity to weigh in, in the privacy of the voting booth,” she said.

Gleeson said he doesn’t believe a public vote is “a waste of time,” as he has heard. The ordinance proposal could piggyback on state elections in June or on the presidential election the following November, he said.

“There’s a place for representative democracy and there’s a place for direct democracy,” Gleeson said. “I would recommend that we do it at the presidential election, because that’s where we get the best representation of people.”

Sachs read a letter from Egan, who prefers a council vote.

“My strong belief is for the council to vote on the ordinance and not send it out to referendum,” Egan wrote. “It is reasonable to expect an influx of money from the plastic bags industry to influence public opinion.”


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