Bag It


As a casual observer of national politics, it seems to me that many of our elected officials may be unfit for their appointed job – namely, governing. Respect for different legislative priorities, as well as the ability to compromise, appears lost, replaced by bitter and dispiriting partisan divides.

Even in our own community it seems that the partisan rift is growing wider and louder, while the majority opinion grows quieter. Have we, as citizens, lost our ability to listen, reflect, discuss and civilly disagree? Are we incapable of accepting policy outcomes that – though divergent from our deepest wishes – were arrived at through a fully participatory process?

As I write I’m thinking about Durango’s Disposable Bag Ordinance that will, surprisingly, be on city ballots this election cycle. This issue – this seemingly small issue – is apparently important enough to earn the distinction as the city’s first ever referendum on a Council-approved ordinance.

Reading through past “bag” letters and editorials, I’m shocked that we’re still engaged in this discussion and dismayed by the leading questions and hollow attacks levied against the ordinance.

One of the more surprising and oft-repeated critiques decries the misguided governing priorities of the City Council to take on an issue that – to some – appears more symbolic than material. So why did the City Council take on disposable bags? Because more than 800 residents signed a petition asking for the Council to follow the lead of numerous cities across the nation and the world that have banned outright disposable bags.

While councilors no doubt had other pressing priorities – that they took up this issue would best be described as responsiveness to a sizeable number of constituents that they were elected to represent. It doesn’t hurt that the topic surely falls within the spirit of the City’s 2007 comprehensive plan vision that speaks to the community’s desire to pursue “economic, environmental and social sustainability.”

How about the actual content of the ordinance? Early in the study and public input process, opponents raised a number of substantive concerns regarding the valuable uses of disposable bags in certain circumstances, fear of economic hardship for low-income families, and onerous administrative burdens on small businesses.

The city listened, studied, and crafted an ordinance that was a compromise between what I’ll call the “ban ’em” camp and the “bag huggers.” The Council decided not to ban plastic bags but to levy an easily avoidable fee (by bringing your own reusable bag that the City will provide for free), created exceptions for low-income families, and exempted small businesses from the program, choosing to capture 70 percent of all disposable bag transactions that occur at only four locations in order to reduce the program’s administrative impacts.

The process followed by city staff and Councilors demonstrates excellent public policy initiative: responsiveness, dialogue, and thoughtful compromise that reflects varied stakeholders’ values and concerns. In August the bag ordinance was passed by a majority vote of councilors.

If only Congress could return to this level of governing competence.

For a small minority displeased with the outcome, city staff and Councilors competent enough to create policy that advances the vision and wishes of the majority is no reason to celebrate. When the democratic process bumps against ideology – process be damned. And so, in a last ditch effort to derail this ordinance, 340 or so signatures were gathered to refer the ordinance back to the City Council and, ultimately, be put on the ballot as a referendum issue.

Here’s my hope and prediction. Voters – initially confused about why this issue is even on the ballot since it was approved by the Council in a 4-1 vote after two years of public input, study, and compromise, will vote for the ordinance, validating the thorough and transparent democratic process that produced it.

And if that happens – the upshot? Five million or so fewer disposable bags will be used for mere minutes before being tossed in the trash every year; a handful of very disappointed bag ordinance opponents will spend good money on gas traveling to Aztec to buy their groceries; the world will continue to spin madly on. Perhaps then our community will be able to apply the same responsible, thoughtful, and inclusive policy process to other important topics like job creation, infrastructure investment, environmental protection, and other essential community priorities.

Vote for the bag ordinance. Let your voice be heard in support of that most rare modern specimen: a democratic process that works.

Dan Olson serves as the board chair for the Sustainability Alliance of Southwest Colorado. Reach him at Daniel Olson or visit the SASCO Web site at

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