At Ulster County legislature public hearing, most speakers support bag ban, oppose term limits

Sarah Wenk of Kingston speaks. (Photo by Gloria Waslyn)

Two recent county-level initiatives, a law that would ban the use of plastic bags by grocery stores and retailers and a law limiting the terms for county elected officials, were talked about at length by county residents at a public hearing in the legislative chambers on the afternoon of Tuesday, Oct. 9.

The “Bring Your Own Bag” law, which would ban plastic bags outright from retailers with a roll-out date of July 15, 2019, was met mostly with support. The law would allow stores to offer customers without cloth options paper bags, but require them to charge at least five cents per bag; proceeds would go back to the retailers rather than contributing to a tax. A few speakers urged County Executive Mike Hein to first add exceptions to the law for residents using SNAP benefits. In an interview last week, Hein said a lack of such an exception may prevent him from signing the legislation as it’s currently written. 

“We are cognizant of the fact that not every person will be able to immediately purchase a reusable bag,” said Cynthia Bell, speaking on the behalf of the local chapter of the League of Women Voters. “[This law] could have a disproportionate impact on those that are already struggling to pay their bills.”

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Bell noted that similar bag bans were packaged with provisions for lower-income residents in Chicago and Colorado. Other speakers argued that similar bans, both nearby and in faraway impoverished countries, haven’t been shown to have a significant detrimental impact on the poor.

“Suffolk County, just to add, does not have a SNAP and WIC exemptions,” noted Jordan Christianson of Citizens Campaign for the Environment. “We haven’t seen any disproportionate impact on any community.”

“The issue of poverty has not stopped many of the poorest countries in the world from passing legislation relating to plastic bags,” said Iris Marie Bloom, a member of Protecting Our Waters. “They were declared the national flower of South Africa and 2003. They have banned plastic bags along with Tanzania, Ghana, Botswana … these are some of the places where some of the poorest people in the world live and yet their governments have seen the importance of [banning them anyway].”

Amanda LaValle, coordinator of the Ulster County Department of the Environment, urged the county executive to push the roll-out date of the local law until 2020 “to do this effectively with a diverse and meaningful stakeholder agreement,” she said, suggesting that the additional time be used to educate county residents on the evils of plastic shopping bags.

A representative from Riverkeeper and another from the Climate Reality Project congratulated the legislature on their environmentally conscious bill, commiserating about their experiences finding plastic bags in the Hudson and their research of “microplastics” in our food chain respectively.

Whoa on term limits, say speakers

Several spoke against a proposed law that would impose term limits of up to 12 years for county legislators, the comptroller and the county executive.

“The League [of Women Voters’] position on term limits has been a long held one—we’re against them, because we go out and vote them out, that way, we have good people like [County Legislator] Tracey [Bartels],” argued Jane Schanberg of New Paltz. “You eliminate the good people and hand power over to staff, really. Where are people going to go for that kind of history? The legislature is pretty balanced … I understand at the federal level when people are willing to try almost anything, but we don’t need it here.”

Other speakers commented that the involvement of Reclaim New York, a group funded by right-wing megadonors the Mercer family, soured the proposition’s authenticity. Hein has also mentioned the Mercers’ role in Reclaim New York, which has taken out ads in local publications in support of the term-limits measure, as one reason he was leaning against approving the legislation.

“As a member of the New Paltz Democratic Committee, I think that no New Paltz Democrat should align themselves to any Reclaim issue,” said Schanberg. “I’m here to urge Executive Hein to veto this bill. This is a case of dark money masking a civic responsibility. If the legislature feels strongly, they can pass a clean local law. But I don’t think that’s necessary.”

“[Reclaim New York] did come to Delaware County and we chased them out. They did the full page ads and all the things they’re doing here. They claim to be non partisan and nonprofit to educate people about their government — what they talk about is affordability crises and how we can’t afford to live here because of the corrupt activities of local and Albany’s government,” said Joyce St. George, who is on the ballot in Delaware County for a state Senate seat. “This is an organization that has been trying to divide communities from their governments for four years now.”

With additional reporting by Dan Barton.

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