A Town Council-supported ballot question, meanwhile, will ask voters to consider a minimal fee on paper and plastic bags.
By Peter McGuire, Staff Writer
Portland Press Herald news story
FREEPORT — Activists are pushing for a referendum to ban disposable plastic grocery bags in town, arguing that a different ballot question supported by the Town Council does not go far enough.
The council’s question on the June 14 ballot will ask whether residents support a minimal fee on paper and plastic bags. If supporters of the outright ban succeed in their petition effort, there could be two competing questions on the ballot.
If a ban were approved, Freeport would be the second town in the state, after York, to prohibit disposable bags as a way to reduce litter and plastic waste. Other communities, including Falmouth, Portland and South Portland, have imposed 5 cent fees on the bags as a way to encourage consumers to bring their own reusable bags.
Last fall, the Freeport council signaled it would place a nonbinding advisory referendum on the June ballot to gauge public interest in a 5 cent fee on plastic and paper bags used at stores that primarily sell food and groceries. The proposed fee would not affect the town’s many outlets and retail stores.
A group of residents responded to the council’s decision by circulating a petition to take a more aggressive approach by banning the use of plastic bags at food stores.
“I think that was sort of a missed opportunity,” John Egan, a member of the group circulating petitions, said of the council’s referendum proposal. “We wanted the decision by the voters to be binding.”
The initiative has prompted the Town Council to bring back the bag discussion, and possibly withdraw its referendum. The council is expected to talk about the issue at its meeting May 3.
Activists argue plastic bags have a negative impact on the environment, create litter and harm ocean life.
“It is entirely an environmental issue,” Egan said. “We are a coastal community. We should be highly concerned with keeping our water clean.”
The debate over disposable bags in Freeport started almost two years ago, when Freeport High School students examined the issue and proposed a draft ordinance. In April 2015, the Town Council voted to pursue an ordinance regulating single-use bags and in a July report the town’s recycling and solid waste committee recommended implementing a ban on plastic bags, with a bag fee offered as a secondary option.
A Town Council ordinance subcommittee, however, opted for a per-bag fee instead of a ban, the proposal councilors decided to send to voters for the June straw poll.
Town Council Chairwoman Melanie Sachs said the council wants to create a disincentive for consumers to use plastic bags, but didn’t want to prevent people from using them entirely. A bag fee is also consistent with regulations of nearby communities, she said.
“The council chose to do this straw poll because they felt they could use some public input on this. If it came back very strongly one way or the other, the council would make a decision,” Sachs said.
According to the Freeport charter, the only way to adopt an ordinance is for the Town Council to enact it or to have a direct voter initiative, said Town Manager Peter Joseph. The council is not allowed to pass a referendum on to voters, he added.
“The only way for us to have a referendum here is for a citizens initiative to do it,” Joseph said.
Activists took out petition papers last week and have until May 4 to return them to the town office. The group needs 650 valid signatures to put the question on the June ballot.
Petitioners have gathered roughly 325 signatures and Egan said he is confident the group will get enough names to certify the referendum. The proposed ordinance is a duplicate of the regulation put forward by the ordinance subcommittee, but with a ban rather than a fee.
Restricting plastic bags in Freeport appears to have considerable public support, although it is not as popular with businesses.
In a 2014 survey of almost 800 voters, 69 percent said they supported a ban on disposable plastic bags, and 67 percent supported banning plastic bags altogether. In a 2014 survey of its own members, the Greater Freeport Chamber of Commerce found a mixed position on a plastic bag ban, with 51 percent opposed and 48 percent in support of a ban.
Bow Street Market, one of the town’s two supermarkets, eliminated the use of plastic bags lasy year and announced this month that its move took 744,000 bags out of the waste stream.
Egan said he is looking for grant funding to provide free reusable shopping bags for Freeport residents if voters approve a ban.
The citizens referendum initiative also has shed light on a potentially troublesome part of Freeport’s town charter that prevents the free distribution of petitions. According to the charter, petitions to place a local initiative on a ballot have to be signed in front of the town clerk or deputy clerk in the town office.
“The way the charter reads right now, petitions have to be signed in the presence of the town clerk. It doesn’t allow for the free circulation of petitions,” said Town Clerk Christine Wolfe.
That could conflict with state law. Kristen Muszynski, a spokeswoman for the Maine Secretary of State’s Office, said there is nothing in state election law that requires petitions to be signed in a particular place or under government supervision, but her office does not oversee local elections.
Joseph said the charter is in conflict with state law, but there wasn’t time to change it before the petition drive started. A charter amendment to allow free petition circulation will be on the June ballot. In the meantime, the town intends to follow state election laws on advice of its attorney and allow the petitions to circulate, he added.
But because the petitioners are technically working in violation of the town charter they could be exposed to a legal challenge, Sachs said.
“They are currently gathering signatures in a way that is not congruent with the town charter,” Sachs said. “There would be grounds to challenge it. My understanding is that they are OK with that risk.”