It took two years for a proposed ban on carry-out plastic bags in Freeport to get scheduled for a public referendum, but the Town Council finally made the decision May 17 to put the question on the June 14 ballot.

Elly Bengtsson and Meredith Broderick, who provided the impetus for such an ordinance, have been patiently following the process from college – Bengtsson from Bates College and Broderick from Elon University in North Carolina.

There’s one aspect of the long wait that suits Bengtsson and Broderick just fine.

“Now we can vote,” said Bengtsson, as she and her old Freeport High School friend attended the May 17 Town Council meeting.

Later, the Town Council followed public opinion voiced at the meeting, and voted unanimously to place the so-called citizen’s initiative on the June 14 ballot. The citizen’s initative, which had 667 valid signatures, replaced a Town Council non-binding referendum that called for a fee on both plastic and paper.

In less than a month, Freeport voters will decide if the town will be the first in Cumberland County to ban plastic shopping bags in stores whose sales are more than 2 percent in food. The same ballot question also would impose a 5-cent fee on paper bags, an issue Bengtsson and Broderick didn’t address when they proposed the plastic-bags ordinance to the council when they were high school seniors, in the spring of 2014.

Bengtsson and Broderick were one of many people who spoke in favor of a referendum vote at the council meeting. Three councilors had supported voting on the matter as a council instead of going to referendum, but clearly were swayed by the public comments.

Stepping to the podium, Bengtsson recalled the reason for the iniative: Plastic shopping bags are an environmental hazard.

“We’re both very glad to be back here talking abut the final steps of the plastic bags initiative,” she said. “Micro-plastics never leave the environment. One-hundred twenty-five towns in the U.S. have bans or fees on plastic bags. All of Hawaii has it. York just banned them. We know that we have a lot of support from Freeport citizens.”

Broderick said that she and Bengtsson were excited to see their proposal get this far.

“We knew it would take a long time, but we didn’t know it would be two years,” she said. “This is Freeport’s chance to be a leader.”

All but one member of the audience at the May 17 Town Council meeting spoke in favor of the entire referendum. John Lowe said he recycles all the time, and praised L.L. Bean and Bow Street Market for being ahead of the curve in discontinuing the use of plastic bags.

“That part that bothers me is I don’t think we should be charging for the paper bags,” Lowe said. “I wish the council had kept those separate.”

Colin Kaveney made the pitch for a public vote at the outset of the public comment period on the bags issue, which drew a parade of speakers.

“I am deeply troubled by some on the council who are against having a public referendum,” Kaveney said. “I think it subverts the democratic process. I call for a full and fair referendum. Maybe even go to November, so more can vote.”

Sue Barker, who lives on Wardtown Road, said she often walks four miles along that road. Barker said she was thrilled that residents will vote on a ban, rather than a fee, on plastic bags.

“I pick up plastic bags regularly,” Barker said. “Having a ban on them means I’m not going to be picking them up anymore, and that excites me.”

Toward the end of public comment, the audience that filled the Town Council chambers broke into applause for Bengtsson and Broderick. Council Chairwoman Melanie Sachs made a final comment.

“This is one of the best examples of a true public process,” Sachs said.

Meredith Broderick, left, and Elly Bengtsson wait in the Freeport Town Hall for the May 17 Town Council meeting to begin. The friends were seniors at Freeport High School when they proposed a ban on single-use plastic bags to the council two years ago. The council voted to send the proposed ordinance to a June 14 referendum.

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