Bag ban needs time to show results

The normally placid Lacey City Council waged a fight recently over the city’s one-year-old ban on merchants giving free plastic shopping bags to customers. Private parties wanted to end the prohibition on disposable bags that often end up in landfills or as litter on road sides and waterways.

Justin Kover, leader of a political action committee that offered to pay the $2,500 election cost, wanted a citywide vote on the policy.

But a slender, 4-to-3 council majority led by Mayor Andy Ryder held firm against the referendum proposal – at least for now.

We support Ryder’s position to keep the ban longer. The Lacey ordinance took effect only one year ago, in July 2014. The city was following previous actions by Olympia, Tumwater and rural Thurston County to ban the plastic carriers in a bid to reduce trash and encourage use of biodegradable products that don’t linger in the environment.

It would be helpful to get solid data to show whether the ban is having a measurable effect.

A very unscientific, online survey carried out by the county after six months showed apparent public opposition to the ban in Lacey. About 57 percent of city respondents said it should end. However, only 1,365 residents went online to register their views.

The county plans a more thorough survey, or poll, in the future that might shed better light on whether the ordinance, which requires people to bring reusable bags or buy paper ones in a store, should remain.

Kover has the backing of Councilman Lenny Greenstein, a bag-ban opponent, as well as council members Virgil Clarkson and Jason Hearn. On the other side are Ryder, Deputy Mayor Cynthia Pratt, and council members Michael Steadman and Jeff Gadman, who have voted to uphold the ban without a public vote.

Kover calls his political committee Effective Self-Governance of Thurston County. The PAC has not reported any campaign dollars collected. But its June 5 filing with the state Public Disclosure Commission pledges not to spend more than $5,000 or accept more than $500 from any one source.

This means the PAC does not have to file details of its contributions or expenditures – as long as no single donor gives more than $500 and the pledge is kept. The PAC would have to open its financial books for public inspection during the eight days preceding the election. But that’s it – and the decision about putting the question on the ballot would be done without knowing the funders.

While the notion of a private party paying for an election may be offensive, it’s not new.

In 1997, billionaire Paul Allen paid the state’s $4.2 million cost of holding a special election on public financing of a football stadium for the Seattle Seahawks football team he was thinking of buying. The June 1997 election asked voters to approve more than $300 million in public financing. Allen said he needed public financing before he would buy the NFL team and keep it from being moved out of state.

In the Lacey case, where the money involved is peanuts by comparison, we’d still like to see better disclosure. But until there is better data on the effectiveness of the ban, we don’t see a need for the issue to come up again.